Financial investigation and associated expertise are still largely unknown and vastly underused by justice and accountability actors, according to specialists in this emerging field. They say that the financial paper trail revealed by such investigations has the potential to bring to light missing links in evidence in both international and national criminal justice efforts, and could open the door to new forms of accountability.
Justice Rapid Response interviewed five financial investigative experts to find out more about the skills required for financial investigation, as well as what this work entails. Louisa Barnett, Nicholas Bortman, Montse Ferrer, and Philip Trewhitt are all financial investigative experts who are on Justice Rapid Response’s roster. Dr. David W. Brown is an independent financial investigative expert and a principal in Brown Brothers Energy and Environment, LLC.
Current underuse of financial expertise could stem from a lack of awareness of its existence amid seasoned prosecutors, according to the experts interviewed, as well as from the international community’s own hesitancy given what can be unearthed by such investigations. When exposed, these money trails can yield powerful evidence against perpetrators and complicit parties.
Follow the money
“Country leaders who are reported to be committing human rights abuses are often untouchable by international justice mechanisms like the International Criminal Court. This leaves their citizens at high risk,” said Dr. Brown. “One way to protect these people is to dry up their leaders’ access to money.”
According to the experts, financial investigation could close huge gaps in both international criminal justice and in truth and reconciliation commissions by providing crucial and cost-effective support to complement witness statements.
“Financial investigations could get you evidence of involvement of senior and peripheral players that you might not get by only looking at crime-based evidence,” said Mr. Trewhitt, who is the Executive Director of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations – which offers a course on the financial dimensions of war crimes investigation.
The current legal framework for intergovernmental cooperation – as well as between the International Criminal Court and states – does not favour financial investigations, but there are ways to get around this say the experts. According to some of the experts interviewed, the reluctance of international mechanisms and their state donors to take on a financial investigative capacity could be based on the potentially controversial implications of these findings.
“Once the economic interests of certain leaders have been exposed, international bodies can publicize this information and financial sanctions can be imposed against these leaders and their companies,” said Dr. Brown.
A rare set of skills
Given that financial investigation is emerging and underused, financial expertise is also hard to come by. To date, there is no widely known school or licensing system for this field. All the experts interviewed say that they came into this field by chance, discovered they had a talent for the work and became passionate about it.
This work requires a special set of skills, say the experts, who highlight the common misconception that being a forensic accountant is the same as being a financial investigator. “An auditor might tell you money is missing, an investigator will hopefully be able tell you who did it and how they did it,” said Mr. Trewhitt.
“To be an investigator, you need to be both good with numbers and world literate, to move between different countries, business cultures, and exhibit levels of openness to the cultural aspects,” said Mr. Bortman. “And then you need to be able to connect the assembled information to prove something. It’s quite a niche thing.”
In 2020, Mr. Bortman and Ms. Barnett co-founded FIND, a not-for-profit practice that investigates the financial operations of perpetrators of war crimes, human rights and environmental abuses to support civil society groups seeking justice for victims.
Public and open source investigating
While the use of this expertise has grown in the private sector for nearly two decades, with many corporations having their own in-house investigative units, it has not trickled into the public sector at the same pace.
Ms. Ferrer gained her experience working on corporate investigations in an international law firm, before moving into the public sector. She currently researches corporate crimes with Amnesty International.
“You need to learn how companies think,” said Ms. Ferrer. “This can be a struggle in the NGO sector, as you sometimes have to explain that this is not how companies think.”
One crucial area of expertise for financial investigators is open source skills, as the lion’s share of evidence can be found online.
“The richness of that data cannot be understated,” said Mr. Bortman. “If properly analyzed by people with the right context, it’s amazing what can be teased out.”
This is confirmed by Mr. Trewhitt’s experience.
“You’d be surprised by how some companies will hand over information on request,” he said. “They often go beyond what is strictly required because they do not want to be associated with crimes. But you’ve got to know where to look, and that’s the information that’s missing at the moment.”
The experts say that their line of work can be isolating because there are no professional networks for financial investigators in the public sector. However, their ability to work remotely and independently has been an advantage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are reaching out to me even more because they know I can work remotely,” said Dr. Brown.
Given that skill, time and access to public information are the main resources needed for financial investigation, it is a wonder, say the experts, that such a powerful tool is still so underutilized.
“We’re confident that this area of investigations will become more widely applied,” said Ms. Barnett, who has seen an increasing recognition by litigation NGOs of the value of integrating financial investigations into case building on international crimes.
Mr. Bortmann agrees.
“So many things are not coming together yet. But that’s why this area of investigation is still exciting. It is uncharted territory, and there is still a lot to gain,” he said.
Justice Rapid Response has a roster of more than 700 vetted justice experts, including financial investigators. In 2020, the organization has undertaken an analysis of the financial investigation sector to gain a deeper understanding of how this type of expertise can enhance the capacity of its partners to bring justice and accountability for mass atrocities.