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Editorial: Getting edge on financial crimes

Among the toughest crime scenes to investigate are those littered with paper, not bullet shells. Unraveling allegations of financial wrongdoing, while routine for the U.S. Department of Justice, is tough for small police departments, due to their complexity.

To address this, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan is wisely beefing up his office’s readiness to prosecute crimes like embezzlement and fraud. By strengthening this area, the DA should be able to help deliver justice for individuals and companies that have been the victims of such offenses.

And the past several years have seen plenty of ripoffs right here in the Valley. Right now, Sullivan’s office is pursing nearly a dozen cases of suspected fraud. The sooner its investigators and prosecutors can bring these cases to court, the faster people could see restitution.

While large cases covered by federal laws are typically kicked upstairs, area police departments and the local DA have had to handle matters involving significant sums, such as the failed Paradise One condo development in Easthampton. Five years later, two women stand charged with larceny in the Easthampton project for allegedly mishandling $146,000 in deposits from would-be buyers.

It can take years to plow through paperwork and financial records to get to the bottom of an alleged crime. But fraud and embezzlement do leave their tracks, and that’s what forensic accountants are trained to find. “Unbelievably tedious” is the way Robert M. Harrison, the Easthampton man hired this year to help the DA’s financial crimes effort, describes these cases.

Harrison brings a lot to the 15-hour-a-week job as a certified fraud examiner, auditor and public accountant. For more than 20 years, he was a chief auditor for the five-campus University of Massachusetts system and before that worked for a decade as a revenue agent with the Internal Revenue Service. Sullivan is lucky to obtain Harrison’s help.

It now falls to Harrison to coach prosecutors assigned to financial crimes, guiding them through thickets of accounting practices and ruses that might go undetected.

As this work picks up steam, the DA’s office is coming off recent successes. It won a case against a Hadley woman who admitted taking money from the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, the union where she worked as treasurer. The union lost $112,000 over six years; it is expected to recoup all it lost through insurance coverage and repayment by the former treasurer.

A 44-year-old Hatfield woman, meantime, faces sentencing in January for stealing $175,000 from a Northampton company by writing checks to herself and misusing company credit cards.

Sullivan is getting Harrison’s services on bargain terms, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts that will pay half his yearly part-time salary.

With this new expert on board, now’s the time for the DA’s office to redouble its vigilance.

As with all crimes, prevention is far better than dealing with the aftermath. Experts like Harrison say victims of financial fraud — whether individuals, business, government or nonprofits — can help themselves by keeping their eyes open when it comes to money.

Businesses need strong internal management controls and steady oversight. Regular people should take great caution when investing, loaning money or trusting someone else to know the details of their financial lives.

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