May 5, 2022 Santa Rosa Press Democrat, | Written by AUSTIN MURPHY
VOLUNTEERS CATCH “CONTRACTOR” FRAUD
This particular crooked contractor had a taste for travel, and a fondness for vintage automobiles. When his bank account was low, he’d hit up his elderly victim,” recalled Gail Goring, who helped send the man to prison four years ago.
“If he wanted to go on a trip, he’d hit up his victim,” she said. “If he needed money for his car hobby, or if he had an IRS lien, he’d hit up his victim.” Goring, 67, retired seven years ago from her job as chief fiscal officer of Sonoma County’s Department of Human Services. One would not peg her as a crime fighter.
Woe betide, however, the swindler whose subpoenaed bank statements end up splashed across the monitor in her home office. With her trained eye and next-level Excel spreadsheet skills, Goring will suss out the damning patterns, the withdrawals and deposits that end up incriminating the suspect and often resulting in a conviction.
Goring is a member of Sonoma County’s FAST team, a legion of accountants, fraud examiners and assorted other sleuths, most of them retired, who volunteer their specialized services to help area police and the Sheriff’s Office prosecute complex financial cases.
Thanks in large part to the forensic accounting performed by Goring and fellow FAST team members, working in concert with the District Attorney’s Office, that contractor found himself facing seven years in prison after a jury found him guilty of two counts of elder theft, two counts of diversion of construction funds and one count of perjury.
Think of the FAST team as a kind of Justice League, minus the skin suits, working to defend — and composed primarily of — the elderly.
FILLING A CRITICAL GAP
Modeled on other such units in California, Sonoma County’s FAST team was assembled in 2015 by the county’s Elder Justice Coalition, a band of groups devoted to advocating for the well-being of seniors. The team takes on one to three cases a month, said Donata Mikulik, the county’s elder justice coordinator. The team fills a critical gap for police departments, which often lack the resources to tackle highly involved financial investigations.
“The more you start getting search warrants and subpoenaing bank documents, you start finding new accounts, new means of embezzlement,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Carla Rodriguez said. “You start having to trace the money, and there’s just no way a detective with a full caseload is going to be able to do those hundreds of hours of work.”
That’s where FAST comes in. “It’s amazing what they do,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s free.”
Not quite. Rodriguez, who is running unopposed in this November’s election to succeed Jill Ravitch as district attorney, is known to express her appreciation to FAST team members by sending them $15 gift cards to In-N-Out Burger.
Gail Goring got such a card after she helped get that thieving contractor convicted. “Were I to have hired someone,” Rodriguez said, “it would’ve cost $50,000.”
UPLIFTING AND DISHEARTENING
When Cheryl Pedersen dropped by a few years ago to visit Goring, her friend and fellow Piner High School graduate, Goring was working a FAST case. “And I said what’s that?” recalled Pedersen, a CPA and former IRS agent. After learning about the team, she said, “Well, how do I join?”
Her skill set, she said, “is in analysis and working in Excel,” which may not quicken your pulse, but is cause for considerable alarm for any potential perp in her sights. “You break down a bunch of items and group them in logical buckets,” she explained. “The numbers are telling you a story.”
Yes, she said, it does feel good to help safeguard the elderly — “partly because I’m one of them,” the 68-year-old deadpanned. “But it’s a little disheartening,” she added, “to see what people are willing to do to the vulnerable. But I guess that’s a story as old as time, right?”
CHIEF SPAGHETTI UNTANGLER
Lorraine Aho knows that story well. Around the turn of the century, after decades in marketing, she found herself looking for a change. She took some jobs in bookkeeping and accounting.
At the first company she worked for she uncovered a case of embezzlement. “I thought, I don’t know what this is, but I like it.”
Aho returned to school to become a fraud examiner, then a CPA. She and her husband now own the forensic accounting firm Aho & Associates, which specializes in investigations for embezzlement, elder financial abuse and marital dissolutions.
Her unofficial title is Chief Spaghetti Untangler. Her untangling method, Aho explained, entails “really gleaning the story and the motivation as to what the person was thinking.”
Why would people steal from the elderly, sometimes from their own family members?
Some are feeding drug and alcohol addictions, Aho said. Others feel entitled to the money they embezzle. “And a lot of those are underpaid, middle-aged women in the workplace who say, ‘Well, you’re not paying me very much, you’re not giving me a retirement. I’m too passive-aggressive to ask for a raise. So I’m gonna steal it.’”
The cost of living in Sonoma County, and a desire to “keep up with the Joneses,” also drives some theft. Aho shares the story of a woman whose daughter was married at a posh Napa resort. Invited to the wedding was the woman’s boss from work, who was baffled.
“He’s looking around thinking, I know how much I pay her, and I don’t think her husband makes that much. How can they afford a better wedding than I can afford for my children?” They could afford it because the woman was spending money she’d stolen from her boss.
After seeing Napa County create its FAST team around 2012, Aho began researching similar programs around the state, “and I started asking, why doesn’t Sonoma County have one?” Now, thanks in part to her “getting in front of the right people” and repeatedly posing that question, it does.
SUSHI, MASSAGES AND EXOTIC CARS
Nancy Palumbo would be happy to talk about her experience on the FAST team, but Monday wouldn’t work. “I’m fully immersed in my grandchildren,” explained Palumbo of Healdsburg, who turns 70 on May 6.
After raising two children, she returned to school at age 38, earning her bachelor’s in business administration at Sonoma State University. There she made a strange discovery: “I discovered I loved accounting, which was crazy,” she said, “because I got terrible grades in math when I was growing up.”
To earn credits toward that degree, she took an algebra class at Santa Rosa Junior College. Early in the semester, she got a C-plus on an exam. Across the top of the paper, the professor wrote: “See me.”
They talked about how she learned best, Palumbo recalled. “I told him I could give a speech on all these things. In that case, came his reply, please write a speech on slope formula, and deliver it to me. “I did, and aced the test,” she said. “After that math came easier.”
Hired by Silicon Valley Bank two decades ago, she became a lender in its wine division. There came a time when she felt a certain emptiness. “The older you get, life seems more precious,” Palumbo said. “It felt as if I wasn’t really helping anybody. I just wanted to help someone.”
She remembers attending a Rotary Club meeting where Ravitch talked about the work of the FAST team. “And I thought, oh my God, I could help people who really need it.”
The first case she worked on led to a conviction. “This guy really liked sushi,” she recounted. “And massages. And exotic cars.”
Like her fellow FAST team members, Palumbo discerns a vivid story where those with untrained eyes would see mind-numbing rows of digits. “The debits and the credits, the way they flow onto the balance sheet, the way they work together and tell that story — it’s a beautiful thing.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ausmurph88.