TRICKSTERS OF THE TRADE

What tempts a well-paid executive to dip his hand in the corporate till? As former Abbey National chief Mike Doyle begins his eight-year sentence, Jon Rees investigates the motivation behind business fraud

When the jail door slammed shut on Mike Doyle, the 35-year-old former marketing services director of Abbey National, he became the latest in an ignoble line of apparently unlikely white-collar thieves to face time inside.

Doyle, who earned 50,000 a year, was sentenced to eight years at the Old Bailey last week for fraud.

The total cost of the fraud, first revealed in Marketing Week, which involved Doyle receiving bribes from marketing services suppliers for putting through excessive or bogus invoices, was said in court to be over 1m. His share was estimated at about 230,000, and part of his sentence involved paying back the bulk of the money he had stolen. His seven co-conspirators were also convicted.

Doyle was described in court as “by any standards a quite well-paid executive and it was really greed that got the better of [him]. It was a weakness that he acted in this way”.

So why does a “quite well-paid” executive become a thief; are there common factors in cases like Doyle’s?

The answer is yes: Doyle was certainly in the right place to begin his career in crime since, as marketing services director, he was involved in commissioning outside agencies to do work for the company.

Professional fraud investigators, whether lawyers or forensic accountants – as the experts in financial fraud are rather glamorously termed – know that the most vulnerable part of a company to fraud is any department concerned with buying.

Indeed, last week Marketing Week reported on a case involving mobile phone company Orange, which is being investigated by police over alleged irregularities in its marketing department’s print operation. The alleged fraud involves buying in services from outside agencies.

Doyle, as marketing services director, had a big say in the spending of the bank’s 35m marketing budget and the fraud only came to light when Gary Brown, the bank’s sales promotions manager, complained that he was not consulted about payments to some of the firms apparently supplying the marketing department.

The fact that Doyle got away with it for almost two years – and this was a very simple fraud committed at a bank, the place where customers expect their money to be most secure – shows that the bank’s controls were not adequate.

Certainly, the trend of the past five years or so of paring companies’ management structure down to the bone has exacerbated many other frauds, say the experts; although this was not necessarily a factor in the Abbey National case.

“One of the by-products of companies’ ‘streamlining’ or ‘down-sizing’ is that, while this has stripped out layers of management, in some cases it has also stripped out layers of controls which would have stopped frauds being committed,” says Gerry Lagerberg, a forensic accountant and partner at Coopers & Lybrand.

Lagerberg, commenting on fraud generally rather than the Abbey National case in particular, says that as well as organisational reasons for the crime, there are less tangible factors at work, too. He says the culture within companies can create an environment where those who are disposed to commit fraud can easily find excuses to do so.

“The moral tone in a company is very important: if it’s somewhere where senior executives fiddle expenses or behave in devious ways, that can breed an attitude of ‘If it’s all right for them, then it’s all right for us’ and people begin to bend the rules. Once they have fiddled some monthly accounts once, the balance is tipped and they find it a lot easier to do it a second time… and then it can become a case of double or quits,” he says.

There are common patterns, too, in the way fraudsters rationalise their behaviour, says organisational psychologist Professor Cary Cooper, of the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology.

He says many fraudsters in Doyle’s position come to believe that they are not doing anything illegal or unethical at all. If, for example, they pull off a particularly good deal for the company, they may feel they deserve a bonus, whether they are entitled to it or not.

Cooper says that though many people in Doyle’s position are well-paid by most people’s standards, they may still feel they are not sufficiently rewarded with regard to their own view of their status within a company or a local community – especially if they are mixing with people who are much better paid than themselves.

“It’s part of a process of cognitive dissonance: which in cases like this means that when people behave in an immoral, illegal or unethical way – and are aware of this – their psychological system is out of balance. They need to restore their balance, if you like, so they justify their actions to themselves by saying that they’re not paid enough and deserve more.

“Ironically, people in these cases are intelligent and well-educated, which means they are often better equipped to rationalise their actions,” says Professor Cooper.

Potential fraudsters also weigh up the risks of being caught, of course and, more than in other crimes, the risks of being prosecuted. The complexity of many major fraud trials is notorious and has even led to calls for the jury to be replaced by specialist judges – though at least one senior fraud investigator says this is unnecessary. “I believe that juries smell fraud. I think they understand the process, too; they tend to have a nose for it,” he says.

Then fraudsters take account of the embarrassment factor – which perhaps applies to defrauded companies even more than defrauded individuals since many organisations believe that the cost of damaging their image by dragging the case through the courts can far outweigh the cost of a fraud.

Those who investigate fraud believe there are plenty of instances of companies covering up wrong-doing rather than face a public examination of their procedures. Not all behave like this, of course, and Robert Wardle, assistant director of the Serious Fraud Office, says differences in attitude can have a strong effect.

“If you know your company is vengeful and it will put resources into investigation, then that’s certainly a deterrent to committing the act. Since the Serious Fraud Office began prosecuting fraud in the financial markets this has definitely had a deterrent effect. A few years ago some people in the markets thought they were above prosecution, now they know they’re not,” he says.

A final factor common to a number of fraudsters, and indeed other criminals, according to Professor Cooper, is an inability to live with their guilt.

“Sometimes, someone outside the fraud, maybe the fraudster’s wife, will unknowingly say something about an unrelated but similar incident in another company and that will be enough to break them. Then they’ll do something to get themselves caught.”

Only Doyle and his seven guilty partners know the true motives for their crime; but what is certain is that someone, somewhere is even now starting down the same path.

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