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Accounting sleuths on the trail of Madoff money

Teams of 'forensic accountants' get set to trace – and maybe recover – funds lost in $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 2008

AP

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New York

Accounting teams are sharpening their pencils and preparing to pore over spreadsheets in an effort to trace the money at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, which stands accused of perpetrating the largest investment scandal in history.

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If the past is any indication, this group of bean counters – call them CSIs with eyeshades – will uncover some assets that can eventually be returned to bilked investors.

Known as forensic accountants, they will comb through the books – in this case multiple sets of books – in a bid to track $50 billion that Mr. Madoff has said disappeared in one giant Ponzi scheme.

"They will be looking for records, fake invoices, cooked books, red flags, anything that doesn't make sense," says Larry Crumbley, the KPMG-endowed professor of accounting at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "They will just be following the computer and paper trail, rather than the DNA."

No one knows exactly how many forensic accountants are available to track money lost to fraud. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has 500 to 600 such accountants whose main job is tracing various types of illegal financial activity, estimates Dr. Crumbly.

Many large accounting firms, too, have accountants who specialize in tracing missing money. Several smaller firms specialize in cases such as the Madoff swindle. Lawyers who represent the investors – charitable institutions, European banks, and individuals who lost their nest eggs, will be hiring some of them.

The work is not easy, say those who've worked to trace Ponzi-scheme money.

"I imagine there will be many, many layers of transactions," says Ken Yormark, managing director and forensic accountant at LECG, consultants in New York. "I would be surprised if we don't find [Madoff] has money someplace other than the US, since he took trips overseas on a regular basis."

Crumbley compares the work to eating a bowl of spaghetti. "You look at a strand and don't know where it starts and ends."

He says it's also like searching for rare coins in a garbage dump using a metal detector. "You will get a lot of false hits."

Forensic accountant Mike Kessler of Kessler International in New York says he usually starts at the end and works his way back to the beginning. "You track the money going backward," says Mr. Kessler.

Mr. Yormark likes to follow "the flow of the funds," which he says usually leads to where the funds have been used.

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