Strike Me Down - Mindy Mejia
One Week Earlier
Nora allowed the words time to land on the crowd, a full audience of mostly twentysomethings with brand-new CPA licenses still crisp inside their wallets.
“You’ve all heard, at some point in your lives, the lie that fraud is a white-collar crime, a victimless crime.” She paced the length of the stage, heels marking the distance between the darkened aisles.
“Sam White was the founder and president of Computech, a microchip manufacturer that weathered the tech crash with little more than a shrug and a few treasury stock purchases. They employed ten thousand people and maintained manufacturing facilities in China, Mexico, and Ohio, with headquarters in Minneapolis.”
The screen behind Nora flashed to a wall-sized scene of a rocky beach where a group of people squinted into the sun. Two teenage boys corralled a pair of dogs while a middle-aged couple, both fit and wearing their gray with ease, corralled the boys. The entire family was frozen mid-laugh.
“Sam White built Computech from his parents’ garage into a Fortune 500 company in less than two decades. For five years they boasted the highest gross profit percentage in the tech sector worldwide, until a whistle-blower inside the company exposed a major misstatement scheme. The SEC opened an investigation into securities fraud, share prices plummeted, and three weeks after the scandal broke in the Wall Street Journal, Sam White shot himself in the head.”
The room, massive as it was, had fallen completely silent. No one sipped their complimentary coffee. No one checked their phones. Two hundred faces stared at the one smiling down at them, the larger-than-life father hugging his son to his dead chest.
Nora glanced at the picture, a familiar swill of emotion clotting her throat, but her voice carried clearly as she swiveled back to the young accountants eager to kick-start their careers. “Sam White was forty-seven years old when he died. Computech declared bankruptcy less than two months into the SEC investigation and thousands of people lost their jobs, including me.
“I was the whistle-blower.”
* * *
Fraud, whether it was a petty cash scheme or a multibillion-dollar revenue inflation, required three essential elements. The first was opportunity; the thief needed access to the assets or financial statements. The second ingredient was pressure. Maybe that meant a gambling problem and a silent, ballooning debt or a sick family member accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills. The pressure could be professional—the imperative to outperform competitors or meet investor expectations—but whatever the form, the person was under stress. They spent nights awake, withdrawn from family life, suffering from headaches, upset stomach, constipation, muscle tremors, and chest pains. They had trouble performing sexually.
Both of those elements—opportunity and pressure—existed ubiquitously. Millions of employees around the world were entrusted with financial authority simply because someone had to write the checks; someone had to approve the journal entries. And stress was the postrecession way of life, the corporate imperative to do more with less. Despite having the opportunity and feeling the pressure, employees didn’t commit fraud until the final, game-changing factor came into play: rationalization. The thief had to find a way to reconcile the crime within their individual moral framework. They created a narrative in which their actions were justified, even righteous. They deserved what they stole. They deserved so much more.
“Sam White took a skydiving trip with his family the summer before I discovered the fraud.” After two hours of lecturing on the basics of fraud detection, Nora always wrapped up the presentation by circling back to the beginning.
“I hadn’t noticed the behavioral pattern, but it was there in plain sight. Sam loved parasailing, skiing in the Rockies, and jumping out of airplanes. He had a risk-taking personality.”
Nora felt the eyes in the room, full of silent questions pressing in on all sides, but every time she locked on a face in the audience, their gaze skittered away, as if embarrassed to be caught paying attention. They wouldn’t make it as forensic accountants if they were afraid to look without flinching, to unearth what lay beneath through the power of a protracted and deliberate stare.
“We operate in an economy that glamorizes risk. It’s embedded in the very heart of the American dream—the entrepreneurial spirit. Business owners constantly risk failure with every decision they make, and the bigger the risk, the potentially bigger the reward. When a high-stakes risk pays off, when a company hits on the product of the year, the money and recognition instantly follow. The risk-taking personality is compelled to chase bigger