Head of U.K. SFO: Diverse Teams Have Led to 3 Life Lessons

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“Fabulous teammates” have taught Lisa Osofsky, the new director of the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office, three top lessons over the years: 1) Make a clear plan. 2) Listen. 3) Find the truth.

“I have worked with teams over time — teams that evolve because the nature of fraud changed with the flattening of the globe. I have learned from veteran investigators,” said Osofksy, the keynote speaker during today’s opening session. “I have learned from young and eager investigators new to the job. I have learned that two or three or four heads are better than one, especially when we’re unraveling fraud. Let me … try to distill what those teams have taught me.” Osofsky received the Dr. Donald R. Cressey Award for a lifetime of achievement in the detection and deterrence of fraud.

Make a clear plan
“Confusion if a friend of the fraudster,” Osofsky said. “Confusion, disorientation — they are oxygen for criminals.” She says that fraudsters’ trade is making lies appear to be true. So, investigators need to bring sunshine and truth via list-making and clear thinking when:

  • Analyzing a fraud.

  • Crafting an investigative plan.

  • Asking questions.

“There is a main event in every fraud,” she said. “Some flavor of lie. … The motive for the lie — almost always — is simple: It’s to get a victim to part with money.” Osofsky said investigators can keep their cases simple by listing the lies, who told them and where you’ll likely find them in documents and electronic material.

List the witnesses to the telling of the lies — victims, co-conspirators and those in between, and list the documents that show where the money went, she said.

“Then, with these lists firmly in hand, put together the practical investigative plan designed to answer the fundamental questions,” Osofsky said. “If you’ve done the hard thinking up front, then the plan is largely a matter of sequencing.”

Listen
A fraud examination starts with a theory, an allegation, Osofsky said. “We need to be guided by facts not by theories. And to do that we must listen — truly listen — to the facts all along the way,” she said.

“We all know listening takes discipline. It takes self-awareness.” She cited how in the new book, Working by historian Robert Caro, the longtime biographer of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, he often writes “SU” — or “shut up” — by his interview questions. “Even a Pulitzer Prize winner tells himself to shut up and listen,” Osofsky said.

“The witness may not make it easy or may fight us or may lie to us,” she said. “But it is our fault — and only our fault — if we have not spent the time to figure out the right questions that matter and then to exert the self-discipline to listen.”

Find the truth
Osofsky said that sometimes we fall in love with our theories and those hypotheses can override the facts. “Confirmation bias is, of course, not just the preserve of investigators — it’s prevalent in every sphere of human behavior. But we need to guard against it.

“Our lodestar must be the truth,” she said. “At every stage and in crafting each investigative step, we must be guided by facts rather than theories or biases. Justice is done not only when we convict the guilty but when we exonerate the innocent.”

Osofsky said that we must be humble enough to know when our initial theory may well be dead wrong — in part or whole. “When we find inconvenient facts, it is our obligation to change our hypothesis.”

Solid and just mission
“Not everyone can say that their job is to wake up in the morning and find the truth. We can,” Osofsky said.

“Working shoulder to shoulder with diverse, talented and dedicated teammates is a joy,” she said. And the subject matter we toll in — greed, envy, pride — is the stuff of drama.

“We are on a just mission, working on strong teams in an inherently interesting field. …We have an obligation to practice at the highest level. We have an obligation to our craft, and we have an unyielding obligation to truth.”