Forensic Investigation and Risk Consulting Services in the COVID-19 Environment

By David Lehmann, David Lehmann
PKF Integrity Principal
24 April 2020

Alex Katz, American artist, is quoted as saying, “Part of what I’m about is seeing how I can paint the same thing differently instead of different things the same way.”

In the forensic investigation and risk consulting space, whilst we like to think we are doing things differently, the everyday routine processes and approaches we adopt can become an inflexible norm.

The new normal?

COVID-19 has forced all of us to think about ways in which we can still deliver investigation and risk projects under what would seem less than ideal circumstances. However, the reality is that we have always been able to deliver work remotely; it has just been the norm that we go on-site and hold physical face-to-face meetings. Whilst this for many reasons has its advantages, it is not absolutely necessary to arrive at the same or a very similar result.

Late last year, when COVID-19 was just starting to emerge in China, we were engaged by a lawyer in Queensland to assist a client in the education sector investigate allegations of misconduct made against a principal at a private school. At that time, due to resourcing and cost constraints, we conducted the investigation from Melbourne.

Prior to speaking to the complainant, witnesses and respondent, the lawyer sent the allegation specific information and the school’s policy and procedural documents relevant to the alleged misconduct by email. This provided us with enough information to conduct interviews over the phone, which were digitally recorded with the consent of the interviewees.

The result of the investigation was that the evidence clearly showed that the allegation was unsubstantiated. We would have arrived at the same result if we had conducted all of our work on-site.

Since issuing our report in that matter, the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have been implemented across Australia, leading to the necessity to work from home. Whilst working from home, we contacted the lawyer representing the school for a short debrief and during that conversation, discussed the current environment and agreed how this investigation was a prime example of what can be done in the current circumstances.

We are about to embark on another investigation for a client based in far North Queensland, using the same approach, but for obviously different reasons.

Use of technology

Technology, pre and post COVID-19, has been a great enabler.

Our view is that meeting our clients and relevant stakeholders face-to-face enables us to build rapport, trust and hopefully long-term relationships. However, when thinking more broadly about the type of work we provide to our clients, technology has enabled us to achieve most, if not all, engagement objectives remotely.

Whether it is an investigation, a fraud risk assessment or a data analysis project, information and data can be obtained from our clients safely and securely using an online portal. We were doing this regularly pre-COVID-19.

As alluded to in the example above, interviews can be conducted over the phone or using technology such as Skype, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Group presentations and workshops can be conducted using similar technologies.

Email and other forms of electronic data to be reviewed as part of an investigation can be acquired remotely, and where required, laptops and mobile devices can be obtained by courier or acquired by one team member attending a client’s office, of course whilst maintaining social distancing and hygiene protocols.

As recently alluded to in an article written by one of my colleagues, COVID-19 has had an enormously adverse impact on the financial viability of businesses and employees. The Virgin Australia administration is a case in point. The circumstance we currently find ourselves in causes a range of personal and professional pressures and consequently increases business risk, particularly the risk of fraud and other serious misconduct.

If these risks are not proactively managed at any time, but especially in this difficult environment, then their financial impact can be amplified many times over with extremely dire consequences.

PKF is open for business, and we are continuing to provide our clients with the same high level of service and quality outcomes, but in a different way.

If you need advice or assistance about any conduct related issues, PKF Integrity is here to help.