Fashioning a Fraud





Businesses must clearly define the roles and responsibilities of employees who sign expense reports and those who process the reports. That should eliminate confusion about whether a manager’s signature means that the individual is authorizing the expenses as reasonable business expenses or signifies that the manager reviewed the report and supporting detail and attests to the validity of the expenses.

Travel and expense transactions should be reviewed randomly for evidence of compliance with corporate policy, proper authorization and approval and the overall reasonableness of expenses. Internal auditors should also conduct periodic reviews of the activities of employees with the highest expense reimbursement totals.

Duties such as signing expense reports and monitoring/managing the budget should be segregated. A fraudster given both of those responsibilities can attempt to bury questionable expenses in under-budget categories.

Bethmara Kessler, CFE, CISA, leads enterprise business risk management for Limited Brands Inc. Her e-mail address is

T his is the story of how a travel and expense report audit exposed a fraudster who siphoned money from the fashion company where she worked to fund her own lavish spending.

The fraudster, Bobbie Jean Donnelly, had taken advantage of a lack of adequate controls over her division’s budget and a lax system for reviewing expenses. The company’s internal audit team detected her crime by analyzing patterns in a year’s worth of reports from employees with the highest travel and expense bills.

Donnelly was hired as an administrative assistant to the manager of a Los Angeles-based design division for a multibillion-dollar retail corporation. Based on her strong performance, she was quickly promoted to office manager for the division.

In addition to managing her boss’s needs, she supervised support personnel and prepared and oversaw the design department’s budget. Her manager gave her the responsibility to provide the first level of expense report review. He relied on her to ensure that the expenses were valid before he signed them. On a few occasions, he even asked her to sign the expense reports on his behalf.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Fraud Casebook: Lessons From the Bad Side of Business, a collection of case studies edited by JofA contributing editor Joseph T. Wells and published in July by John Wiley & Sons Inc. Identifying characteristics, including the names of individuals and organizations involved in this case, have been changed or omitted.

As the business grew, management decided it was time to build a traditional internal audit department. That’s where I came in. My internal audit team was conducting a routine travel and expense audit. We developed an audit program designed to ensure that employees were following the corporate travel and expense policy and that adequate internal controls for the processing and payment of expense reports were in place and operating effectively.

The team assembled a sample of individuals and transactions to test. The individuals were selected from the population of employees who submitted the highest dollar amounts over the course of the year for reimbursement. The transactions were selected randomly across the total population of submitted expenses.

The approach and criteria used to audit the individuals differed significantly from the approach used to audit the transactions. The transactions were reviewed for compliance with the policy, proper authorization and approval, and overall reasonableness of the expense. That work yielded some audit exceptions—mostly small and isolated—but no major surprises.

The more interesting results of the work came from the review of individuals. We looked at the reasonableness of the expenses based on the employee’s role in the company and searched for any patterns of activity that seemed unusual.

We quickly identified a group of individuals who routinely submitted their American Express bills for reimbursement instead of submitting detailed receipts of individual expenses. A closer look revealed that many employees were submitting expenses twice. The bills began to show a pattern—one month of charges, the next month a late fee with old charges and new charges combined. It didn’t take long for us to determine that the activity was coming from one area of the business—the design department. Several individuals had devised very inventive ways of submitting expenses for reimbursement.

In some cases, employees submitted the same receipt multiple times but altered the size of the tip and total amount on each of the documents to make the duplication less obvious.

I asked my lead auditor to gather all the expense reports for employees in that division. Several of the Los Angeles-based employees routinely traveled to New York on business and submitted New York City taxi receipts for reimbursement, a legitimate expense. Upon examination of the actual taxi receipts, we noticed multiple receipts that appeared to come from the same taxi on the same day. New York City taxis are regulated and have electronic meters that print receipts. The receipts all show the taxi medallion number and the trip number. We found multiple receipts had sequential trip numbers from the same day. This seemed suspicious. The time stamps had small gaps between the end time of the receipt first in sequence, and the start time of the receipt next in sequence.

The employee who had run up the highest expenses was the office manager, Bobbie Jean Donnelly. She had charged about $115,000 over the previous year, while her manager had submitted about $40,000 in expenses. It seemed strange that Donnelly’s expenses would be so much higher than her manager’s.

I met with our general counsel and informed him of what we had identified in the audit. He agreed that we needed to conduct a thorough investigation of the design team’s expenses, especially Donnelly’s activities.

To search for red flags in the expense reports, my lead auditor and I used data analysis software to sift through the data. The software allowed us to identify duplicate amounts and isolate the expense reports that we needed to review in tandem.

The expense reports were on paper and were voluminous, but we believed it would be worthwhile to invest the time of some members of our team to help build a database of the expense detail to facilitate the review.

That investment paid off. Without the software we would never have identified that many of the expenses submitted multiple times for reimbursement were filed over the course of many months.

Tools that could be used to examine and parse such data include IDEA Data Analysis Software, Audit Command Language (ACL), Excel, Access, SQL, SAS—generally any database or query software.

We separated the duplicates and, in some cases, expenses that were submitted numerous times. We found that Donnelly and four other design division employees were routinely submitting expenses multiple times for reimbursement. Our review linked Donnelly to about $12,000 in false expenses. But I had a nagging feeling about the sheer amount of expenses she was submitting, so I ran additional analyses on her expenses to aggregate them by category.

I was surprised to see that the majority of her purchases were samples, items that design team members, who traveled extensively searching for inspiration for new product lines, purchased as part of their research and development. Using the audit software, I extracted all travel-related expenses Donnelly submitted to see if the sample purchases correlated to trips that other design team members took. I found that they did.

It also appeared that her manager had sent her to Italy to recruit interns for the company. Donnelly had submitted more than $6,000 in expenses for this one-week trip. It seemed that she had wined and dined the students at the finest restaurants in Italy. In reality, there was no recruiting trip. Those expenses coincided with a vacation that Donnelly and her husband took to Italy.

 »  Practical Tips  
Never ask anyone in a business setting to reproduce your signature on any kind of document, even something as seemingly benign as a birthday card. Such a request can trigger claims that the individual was authorized to sign documents for you and can undercut your legal standing if the individual forges your signature in the course of a fraud.


The company’s expense reporting process required individuals to describe the business purpose of an expense and have their manager sign off on the actual expense report. Donnelly’s boss was amazed by how accurately Donnelly forged his name on her fraudulent expense reports.

Given the nature of its work, the design department’s budget was made up of broad estimates of the types of expenses it would incur throughout the year. Some projects were specifically identified in the budgeting process, but there were general categories described only as “other” or “miscellaneous.” Donnelly used these general categories to pad the budget in the planning process.

By signing the expense reports on her manager’s behalf and monitoring budget-to-actual variances each month, she could submit her fraudulent expenses coded to a budget line that was running below budget so that her manager would never detect the activity.

The final tally of Donnelly’s fraud was approximately $275,000 over two and a half years. Almost 95% of her submitted expenses were false. The biggest category of her fraudulent expenses was samples, which she was not authorized to buy. Donnelly’s manager recognized many of her expensed purchases as items that she wore regularly to work. Her purchases included a pair of $750 Jimmy Choo shoes, $875 for a Hermès scarf and $1,250 for a Prada wallet.

Donnelly and other design department employees who had abused the expense report system were terminated. Our investigation was unable to determine if a link existed between Donnelly’s actions and the travel and expense fraud of other employees in the department.

The company’s general counsel and I took our findings to the district attorney’s office, which agreed to prosecute Donnelly. At first, she was adamant about her innocence and refused to consider a plea agreement. Donnelly’s manager and I testified before a grand jury that indicted her. Ultimately, she accepted a plea to a charge of grand larceny, a felony that came with a sentence of one to three years in prison. Donnelly served approximately three months of that time in jail.

When the case was over, I worked with the management team to recap the breakdowns in our systems and examine the lessons learned. Some changes the company made in the wake of the findings included:

Modifying travel and expense policies to be more detailed with respect to supporting documentation for expenses. The company now requires original documentation and prohibits credit card statements and photocopies. Such requirements prevent employees from submitting duplicate expenses for reimbursement.

The company also now requires all employees to use a corporate credit card for business expenses. This significantly reduces the amount of expenses for which people claim to have paid cash and reduces their ability to split the credit card receipt from the detailed receipt and submit both for reimbursement.

Both the internal audit team and the travel and expense team within accounts payable have expanded the use of audit software to proactively look for warning signs of fraud in T&E data. The T&E team also developed auditing protocols to increase efficiency in auditing T&E data. Quarterly, team members separate big spenders from the rest of the population to look for patterns that appear odd. Weekly, they randomly select expense reports to review against a set of audit criteria.


Auditing for Internal Fraud, a CPE self-study course (#730278).
Fraud and the Financial Statement Audit: Auditor Responsibilities , a CPE self-study course (#731814JA).

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