• Career Center : Just Starting Out

    The Sky is the Limit for Accounting Graduate Turned NCIS Special Agent  

    Denise R. Harding, CFE, CPA,  

    Special Agent   

    Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)   

    Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., USA 


    From investigating counterterrorism and espionage to tracking down the illegal purchases of four F-14 Tomcats, Denise R. Harding, CFE, CPA, NCIS Special Agent, had no idea how far an accounting degree and a CFE credential would take her in her career. As an economic crimes desk officer, Harding is responsible for reviewing and monitoring all of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service's (NCIS) investigations that deal primarily with white-collar crime.

    Describe your job function (a day in the life of):  

    I watch for potential high-profile investigations that will garner the interest of flag officers at the Pentagon, the media or Congress. I coordinate regularly with agents in the field to provide investigative support and guidance for all NCIS investigations with financial implications, including counterterrorism, homicide, narcotics and espionage investigations.

    What kind of training was required of you before you could join NCIS? For example, did you need Navy training?

    To be a special agent, you need to have a bachelor's degree and be under the age of 37. For other positions with NCIS, such as an analyst, accountant or investigative support, there is no age requirement.

    What made you decide to become a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) and how has earning the credential benefitted you in your career?

    I worked with a CFE on my first job with the Washington State Department of Revenue. As my mentor, he gave me the opportunity to work tax evasion cases and introduced me to fraud investigations. He encouraged me to become a CFE and find a career where I could investigate fraud full time. The credential grants me instant recognition as a subject matter expert throughout the Department of the Navy and the federal investigative community.

    What do you enjoy most about your career as a CFE?

    Fraud investigations are like working a big story problem. I love solving the puzzle.

    What do you enjoy most about the NCIS?

    NCIS' mission is so broad; you never have to work the same type of case twice. I have had the opportunity to work in counterterrorism, cold case homicides, narcotics, espionage, contract fraud and numerous other types of cases.

    You've been to three of the most recent annual ACFE fraud conferences and attended this year's as well. What keeps you coming back? What do find most useful among the benefits of attending?

    The ACFE conference allows me to satisfy my CPE requirements for my CPA and the CFE in one setting without straining my office training budget. The classes, break-out sessions, and general session speakers are always relevant and interesting. I usually find there are more break-outs that I want to attend than [there is] time to attend them.

    In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for CFEs today?

    The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity are one and the same: the workload. Whenever I talk with my colleagues and other special agents in the economic crimes field, there is always more work to do than there are people and resources to respond.

    Please describe your most memorable fraud case and its resolution (to-date if it's a fresh case). Feel free to use pseudonyms for suspects if the case is ongoing and no judgment has yet been made.

    When I worked in Los Angeles, a source reported there were two F-14 Tomcat Aircraft on display at a museum in California that contained all the cockpit electronics and claimed one aircraft had engines that were fully operational. When an aircraft is decommissioned by the military, it must be "demilitarized" – where all the computers, electronics, explosives, armaments, etc. are removed and the remaining shell is cut up into scrap metal. The F-14 is especially sensitive because the Iranian military still flies these aircraft.


    Iran is constantly looking to purchase replacement parts. All the parts on the F-14 are export-protected and are not allowed to be sold outside the United States. I worked the case jointly with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Together, we identified a command from Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station that had inappropriately sold not two, but four F-14s to a scrap-metal dealer without demilitarizing the planes.


    Through a series of concealed transactions, the planes were sold to the museum. The owner of the museum knew the planes had not been authorized for sale and knew they needed to be demilitarized, but neglected to do so. He also knew military aircraft and vessels are always property of the United States and cannot be privately owned.


    In March 2007, about 40 agents and I seized all four aircraft and monitored them for a month as each aircraft was dismantled and placed on a flatbed truck for transport to a military facility. The civil case was settled last year with the Navy refunding a portion of the purchase price for the aircraft to the museum. The aircraft have since been demilitarized and scrapped.


    My favorite part of the case? Calling the NCIS evidence custodian in San Diego and asking, seriously, where we could store four full-sized F-14 Tomcats.

    How important is networking to you as an anti-fraud professional?

    I have contacts all over the world with different areas of expertise. It is not possible for me to be an expert in all areas of economic crimes. Whenever I have a new investigation, I have a wide network of contacts and colleagues I can call for suggestions and guidance.


    We also keep each other up to date on the current changes in fraud investigation. For instance, when the 9th Circuit Court had a recent decision regarding electronic data seized in search warrants, my contacts in California let me know. When I had questions from other agents working similar cases in Washington State, I was able to provide them the information in a timely manner to help them prepare their search warrant affidavit.


    What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow a similar career path as you?  

    Don't ever limit yourself to what others tell you is an "appropriate" career path. When I graduated from college in accounting, I was told I could only work in a CPA firm as an auditor, or as part of the payroll or accounts receivable staff in a large corporation. Three years ago, I found myself supporting the director of NCIS as he testified at a Congressional subcommittee hearing regarding contract fraud in the Navy. As that new accounting graduate, I never would have thought becoming a special agent was even an option. It definitely is. Anything is possible.