A Master of Challenges
According to the FBI, when FY 2011 ended, the agency was following up on 726 corporate fraud cases in field offices across the United States. Several of these cases saw losses to public investors that individually exceeded $1 billion. One person charged with tracking down the money in these high-profile cases is Joe Ford M '09.
A Forensic Accountant for the FBI in Memphis, Tenn., for nearly 16 years, Ford says, "I'm looking behind the numbers to see if there was a crime committed and if so, what it was, and then developing evidence to present to a grand or trial jury to get a conviction." The majority of his work is looking at bank records to follow the money trail in fraud cases ranging from mortgage, insurance, securities to fraud against the government and occasionally terrorist financing-any type of white collar crime.
"The special agents who are managing the case subpoena financial records and I review them-and it could be thousands of documents. Trust me, it's not like on television where you solve it in 30 minutes-it could take months," he says. "We also assist agents in trial prep and sometimes design charts showing the flow of money. You may have 20 or 30 financial transactions, so drawing a picture makes it understandable for the jurors. If it's a complex case, it can be difficult to boil it down but I have to."
Ford entered Stevenson's master's in forensic studies because he sought "a mental challenge." His interest in returning to the classroom took time to kindle; the first spark caught when he was asked to speak to the Accounting Club at the University of Memphis and he remembered what the academic environment was like. A colleague who had gotten a master's degree encouraged him, yet it wasn't until he saw an ad for Stevenson's program in Fraud Magazine that he was sold.
"I looked at the program and it was like they'd developed it for me," Ford says. "I started this pretty late-in my late fifties-so I'd been away from the academic world for a long time, but when I started the program, I found that what I lacked in youth I made up for in experience."
He lauds the program's online format and convenience because he was-and still is-working full time. "I learned that Saturday mornings were not for sleeping late! I would normally read during lunch hour during the week and prepare my weekly assignments on Saturdays."
Ford's favorite part of the program-although he says he enjoyed it all, even writing papers, much to his surprise-was the mock trial courtroom case at the end of the course. "The faculty really worked hard to do the mock trial right. I'd testified as an expert witness in real trials beforehand so I thought the mock trial would be play time, but no, it was real, and a tremendous amount of work. We got to campus and started early and worked late, all just like a real trial. When I 'testified' as an expert witness, I felt exactly like I did in a real trial-I was actually nervous."
Ford's team won the case but he notes that either side could have won and that he liked the fact that the grade was not based on the outcome of the case but rather how well you prepared for it. He also notes that his trial team bonded so well that they keep in touch and three years ago held a mini-reunion with some of the members in D.C. "There were four or five of us there and we shared a meal and relived our courtroom victory," he says. "I would love to come back to Stevenson for a mock trial to see how it is now."
He particularly lauds Maria Howell, J.D., Associate Professor, Forensic Studies, for her dedication to her students. "She stayed in the dorms with us on campus during the mock trial. She wanted us to succeed as much as we wanted to." He also recalls that at the end of the mock trial, there was an informal graduation ceremony where Thomas Coogan, J.D., Chair and Professor, Forensic Studies, gave a nice speech and they were presented with their diplomas. "I will remember this as long as I live: when I got on the plane to go home afterward, I would not part with my diploma. I held it on my lap for the whole flight because I was so proud of it. I later talked to another woman from the program and found that she had done the same thing."
Today, he says, there's no question that he's a better employee as a result of the program and is more motivated. "I was looking for a challenge when I did the master's program and I found it. I knew it would be a significant accomplishment but didn't grasp it until the very end. I still feel that. It is a neat feeling and it's going to stay with me."
After Ford finished, however, he found that he had a lot of free time on his hands. "I was always reading or working on an assignment, but after it was over with, I felt like I didn't have anything to do. I thought I'd mastered a mental challenge but decided to see what I could do as a physical challenge-so I decided to be a pole vaulter in the Senior Olympics."
That's right-in January 2010, at age 60, Ford, who had pole vaulted in high school using a bamboo fishing pole, began working out, making it off the ground in his first practice attempt. That same year, he began participating in the Senior Olympics. Since then, he has won more than first and second-place medals in various Senior Olympic and Masters Track and Field competitions. In the 2011 National Senior Olympics in Houston, he placed sixth in the nation.
"So the master's program also led me to want to figure out a physical challenge," he notes. "Pole vaulting is harder than golf, let's just say that."
In July, Ford participated in the 2013 Senior Olympics in Cleveland. "It was raining, and normally, we wouldn't compete in those conditions, but since it was a national competition, we went ahead. Eleven people signed up but only five showed," he says. As for his results? With a chuckle, he says, "Well, you can either say that I'm fifth in the nation for my age group-or I'm the last for my age group. I didn't jump as well as I should have. The best I'd have gotten is a tie for fourth if I'd jumped my best." Ford also says that he tried to qualify, on a whim, for the 50 meter race. He didn't, but he was third in his heat. A new challenge?
Overall, he had a great time, he says. "I got to see some people run fast and jump high!"