Forensic accountants team up to fight elder abuse

The profession plays a key role in an innovative approach to combating elder financial exploitation in a program that is spreading nationally.
By Drew Adamek

The purple ribbon is a symbol of a campaign to raise awareness of elder abuse. Accountants play a role in protecting older people from exploitation.
The purple ribbon is a symbol of a campaign to raise awareness of elder abuse. Accountants play a role in protecting older people from exploitation. (Photo by hidesy/iStock)

When Clarabelle Martin's husband died without a will in 2014, the upstate New York widow asked her brother, Gary Brink Sr., to help navigate her finances. The octogenarian Martin was in the early stages of dementia and struggling financially, so she assigned Brink the power of attorney to manage her money.

But in 2015, an attorney hired by Martin to sort out unresolved estate issues with her stepchildren made a startling discovery: Nearly all her money was gone. Martin was on the verge of losing her home and in real danger of destitution.

Martin's attorney turned to the local district attorney, who referred the case to Investigator Stephen Crouch of the New York State Police (NYSP). The attorney supplied law enforcement with stacks of financial records showing that Gary Brink Sr., along with his son, Gary Brink Jr., transferred money out of Martin's accounts and purchased big ticket items for themselves while also moving money between multiple accounts in an apparent effort to hide the withdrawals. The pair were accused of making off with almost $200,000 of Martin's money, according to press reports at the time of the Brinks' arrests.

"When I got this information, I had pages and pages of bank records," said Crouch, now a sergeant with the NYSP. "It was clear to me at the time that there was criminal activity going on, but I didn't have all the dollars and cents. They were funneling it through so many accounts that I couldn't keep track of it all."

Crouch faced several investigative dilemmas: First, as Martin's fiduciary, Brink Sr. had the authority to use her funds on her behalf and to act in her best interest and therefore Crouch needed proof that Brink Sr. did so only to benefit himself, not Martin. And then, Crouch needed to show exactly how the Brinks spent Martin's money, how they hid it, and why that spending constituted a crime.

However, answers were hidden in a disorganized pile of financial documents. Without a clear, narrative trail of evidence pulled from those records, Crouch couldn't charge the Brinks with stealing Martin's money. Someone needed to find proof of a crime within those records.

Crouch turned to Assistant District Attorney Heather Hines of the Ontario County (N.Y.) Court for help. Hines then recommended a novel approach — taking the case to the Ontario County Enhanced Multidisciplinary Team (E-MDT), a program designed to bring together various experts on elder abuse to take a more collaborative, holistic look at preventing and intervening in elder abuse and financial exploitation cases. Critically for the Martin case, the local E-MDT included Karen Webber, CPA, a forensic accountant who could tackle the stack of documents on Crouch's desk.

"Prior to this case, I had not given much thought to using a forensic accountant because I didn't know how much they could bring to the table," Crouch said. But he was open to any help, especially when it came to determining the scope and scale of the crime and, based on that analysis, exactly what criminal charges the county could bring against the suspects. "I thought it was great because it was going to give us more data and strengthen our case," he added.

GROWING PROBLEM

Law enforcement agencies across the country need the same kind of help. "Financial exploitation is a fast-growing form of abuse of seniors and adults with disabilities," according to the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA). The problem is "widespread, expensive, even deadly," and largely hidden with only one in 44 cases of financial abuse being reported, according to NAPSA.

Family ties and legal ambiguity can often complicate elder financial exploitation cases. The majority of elder financial exploitation is carried out by family members, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. Some family members may have the legal right to spend the victim's money, as in the Martin case, and determining what is abuse can be challenging. Resource-strapped law enforcement can find it difficult to dedicate the necessary time to find proof of abuse within mountains of disparate financial data.

That's where CPAs like Webber, the forensic ­accountant who took on the Martin case, can provide law enforcement with the insight and clarity that they need in order to bring these complicated, often fraught, cases to justice.

"There's just so much work to be done in the area of elder abuse and financial exploitation," ­Webber said. "Accountants are in the perfect position to provide that support in terms of analyzing transactions and providing education."

Innovative programs like the E-MDTs in New York state are one way for accountants to become involved with preventing and detecting elder financial exploitation, and as the E-MDT concept begins to spread nationally, accountants can play a significant role in obtaining justice for victims of abuse.

Forensic accountant Karen Webber, CPA, focuses on cases of elder financial exploitation, gathering evidence that can lead to criminal charges and the recovery of stolen money.
Forensic accountant Karen Webber, CPA, focuses on cases of elder financial exploitation, gathering evidence that can lead to criminal charges and the recovery of stolen money. (Photo by Heather Ainsworth/AP Images)


BIRTH OF E-MDT

Originally piloted in 2012 with federal funds in eight New York counties, seven around the upstate Finger Lakes region and one in New York City, E-MDTs usually consist of representatives from Adult Protective Services and local district attorneys, along with social workers, law enforcement officials, therapists, medical experts, bankers, and accountants.

The teams are assigned a geographic area and meet regularly to review cases from within that jurisdiction, each expert contributing advice and guidance on how to best protect potentially exploited seniors. From the beginning, forensic accounting has played a significant role in the E-MDT concept. While most E-MDT members are volunteers, the initial funding grant did include funds to pay two types of professionals: forensic accountants and geriatric psychologists, according to Allison Granata, enhanced multidisciplinary team program manager at Lifespan of Greater Rochester. Lifespan directly coordinates the E-MDT programs in the Finger Lakes region and acts as the fiduciary and monitor for the statewide program.

"When we first started with the funding, our initial focus was financial exploitation cases," said Granata, a social worker. "What we are finding is that there is so much complexity in financial exploitation, especially with elder abuse cases." She added that having a forensic accountant on the team "helps us translate financial transactions and make sure where we are truly asking the right questions or getting the right information."

A LEAP OF FAITH

Providing that clarity has been a driving force in Webber's career. She first encountered elder financial exploitation during an internship at a not-for-profit as a forensic accounting graduate student. After graduation, she continued working with the organization during a five-year stint in a regional public accounting firm's forensic accounting and litigation services department.

Wanting to branch out, Webber eventually left the firm to establish her own elder abuse practice. While it was challenging leaving a secure role at an established firm, it felt like the right thing to do.

"I felt like if I don't go after this work, someone else will, and I will be really disappointed that I didn't make the leap," she said.

Webber's gamble paid off. She earned the contract as the sole forensic accountant in the initial E-MDT funding round and became responsible for handling all referrals from the E-MDTs in the original counties. (See the sidebar, "Getting Involved With Elder Financial Abuse Cases," for Webber's advice to other practitioners who may be interested in this line of work.)

SLOW GROWTH

It was slow going at first. It took time for the E-MDT concept to grow throughout the state as law enforcement and protective services organizations had to break out of their traditional silos.

"Elder abuse E-MDTs were still a new concept at the time," Granata said. Elder financial exploitation was not a hot topic in law enforcement circles, particularly during the height of the opioid crisis, and the opacity of financial crimes made law enforcement hesitant to engage with difficult cases, she added.

"But once we got people to the table and they started to see the benefit, we started to see an increase in engagement," Granata said.

As the E-MDT work began to increase, Webber added three full-time staffers to her firm to manage the caseload. When the Martin case referral from Crouch landed on her desk, her firm was handling close to 100 financial exploitation cases annually, with each case lasting four to six weeks, according to Webber.

RED FLAGS

While every case Webber sees is different, many share commonalities, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ's) Elder Justice Initiative. ­Often, victims will show signs of cognitive impairment, and there can be sudden changes in banking practices, unpaid bills, recent revisions to wills, missing property, unexplained transfers of assets, missing property, or unauthorized withdrawals.

In the Martin case, Crouch saw many of those red flags but didn't have the hard evidence to show that these warning signs constituted a crime. He brought the case to an E-MDT meeting for discussion, and that's where Webber and her team's forensic accounting work began.

"I took the records in the meeting, got the background on the case, and determined that we would put together a forensic accounting report that would assist in the prosecution of Gary Brink senior and junior," she said. What investigators and prosecutors were looking for was a forensic report that laid out exactly how much of Martin's money was spent, what it was spent on, whether that money was used for her benefit, and how much money was unaccounted for, according to Webber. She produces the same type of report for all of the cases she works.

"Because at the end of the day, someone has to go to court and explain to a jury, in really simple terms, what happened," she said.

What appears to have happened in the Martin case, according to Webber's final analysis, was that Gary Brink Sr. and his son bought new trucks with Martin's money and then immediately resold them for cash that they then pocketed. They also withdrew cash from her bank accounts via ATMs and stole physical property from her home that they sold for cash. Webber and her team were able to demonstrate the complicated transfer schemes between multiple accounts the Brinks used to hide their theft.

Armed with Webber's analysis, Crouch determined that the Brinks had stolen just over $179,000. A grand jury indicted the pair, and they were arrested in July 2015 and charged with second- and third-degree larceny and fourth-degree money laundering. Crouch brought the information from Webber's report into his interrogation with Gary Brink Sr. as a potent rebuff to Brink's denials.

"I brought the fact that I could attribute large amounts of money directly to him and that I could prove that he was laundering the money," said Crouch. "He didn't want to admit guilt, but he couldn't rebut it either. It made my case exponentially stronger."

As part of her E-MDT work, along with conducting the analysis and writing reports, Webber testifies either in front of a grand jury or during trials. But her trial testimony wasn't necessary in this case: Both Brinks pleaded guilty minutes before their trial was to start, a move that Crouch attributes to the unassailable evidence Webber had put together. Gary Brink Sr. received a three- to six-year prison sentence, and Gary Brink Jr. received a two- to four-year prison sentence. A portion of Martin's money was recovered. Attorneys for the two did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Gary Brink Sr. died in January 2019.

MOVING FORWARD

While the Martin case was resolved, millions of elder financial exploitation cases are out there. And the E-MDT model, including the participation of forensic accountants, is starting to spread. New York's program has grown from the original eight counties with E-MDTs to 40 counties, and additional funding has been allocated by the state to expand the program to all 62 of New York's counties by 2020. Currently, Webber and her firm, Webber CPA, are the only forensic accountants in the state contracted with the E-MDT program.

However, the DOJ's Office for Victims of Crime announced an $11 million grant competition to create E-MDTs modeled on New York's program nationally, and there will be other opportunities for forensic accountants to become involved as states develop their own programs.

"Financial exploitation of older adults and the lack of resources in the community to fight financial exploitation isn't an issue just for the state of New York," said Webber. "It's an issue everywhere, and the accountancy profession, forensic accountants, and private practitioners need to fill that gap."


Getting involved with elder financial abuse cases

Elder financial exploitation is a growing problem of increasing severity as the U.S. population ages. Studies have shown increased mortality among seniors who have been financially exploited, and the problem is severely underreported. Programs like the enhanced multidisciplinary team (E-MDT) are raising awareness of the problem and offering innovative approaches to solving it, while also creating opportunities for CPAs and forensic accountants to contribute their expertise.

Karen Webber, CPA, has been working with New York state's E-MDT program helping law enforcement uncover elder financial abuse since 2012 and is currently the only CPA and forensic accountant contracted with the program. She offers the following advice for other accountants interested in working on elder financial abuse prevention and detection.

Get educated

Elder financial abuse is a complicated issue with intertwining legal, social, medical, financial, and psychological facets. Webber recommends CPAs, including those who hold the Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) specialty credential, looking to develop an elder financial abuse practice or contribute to existing efforts start learning about the causes and effects of abuse. Resources accounting professionals can use to expand their knowledge in this field include education programs, forensic accounting resources offered by the AICPA, law enforcement seminars, or other professional development organizations.

"Another way is to study high-profile cases like Brooke Astor, Casey Kasem, or Mickey Rooney to become conversant," she said.

Build a network

In order to develop a viable practice, accountants will need to build networks among nonaccounting professionals and agencies working on elder financial abuse, according to Webber. That means reaching out to law enforcement agencies, adult protective services, elder law attorneys, area agencies on aging, and local domestic violence and abuse agencies. These groups are already working in the elder financial abuse space, and they can offer both educational and professional opportunities to accountants, Webber said.

Understand the funding

Funding for elder financial abuse detection and prevention is a blend of state, private, and federal money, and understanding how the funding works is essential for establishing a practice, according to Webber. Organizations such as the U.S. Justice Department's Elder Justice Initiative, Office for Victims of Crimes, and Office on Violence Against Women, as well as private organizations, offer funding for combating elder financial abuse. Applying for funding can be a bureaucratic labyrinth and generally requires partnering with a not-for-profit organization, so the more accountants understand the process, the more likely they will successfully raise money to support this work.

Volunteer

Webber volunteered as a forensic accountant with a local not-for-profit for years before earning the E-MDT contract. The best way to become involved is to start working on the issue now, even if you don't get paid for it right away.


About the author

Drew Adamek is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.


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