The similarities end with the initials

By Dr. Joseph T. Wells, CFE, CPA
joseph-wells-80x80   From the Chairman

The PBS program, "Frontline," recently ran a scathing exposé on ACFEI, the American College of Forensic Examiners International, essentially calling it a "credentialing mill." Many ACFE members were upset because of the similarity in initials; so were we. Some people may mistakenly think there's a connection between the organizations; there's not.

ACFEI, based in Springfield, Missouri, boasts a slick website, a prestigious-looking list of "advisory directors," and fancy-sounding "certifications." But other than similar initials, the ACFE has nothing in common with the ACFEI. As you will read, it is doubtful that you'll want anyone to confuse the two organizations. The public, the legal community or prospective employers or clients might ask you to point out the differences. That's easy if you've done your due diligence; we have.

The story begins and ends with Robert Louis O'Block, the ACFEI's founder and ostensible owner. He started his career as a teacher at Appalachian State University (ASU) in Boone, North Carolina. After more than a decade, he was fired from that tenured position for multiple instances of academic plagiarism, according to Dr. Joel Thompson, professor emeritus at ASU and then the chair of O'Block's academic department. It seems that O'Block was attempting to be promoted by submitting research articles under his name that he hadn't written.

Before that fact was known in the academic community, he applied and was accepted for another job as a teacher at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri. He only lasted a few years before he was forced to resign or be terminated for cause. Dr. Kenton Olson, dean of the college; and Dr. Suzanne Martin, a former division chair, said that O'Block started his first "certification" by funding it with the unauthorized use of the school's resources, even requiring students to stuff envelopes with his marketing material. Leaving two different universities with such a disreputable track record would likely make O'Block unemployable at any institution of higher education. So he turned to the certification business full time.

"Frontline," in conjunction with ProPublica, claimed O'Block, who has no background in forensics, was interested in handwriting analysis. However, a handwriting organization had rejected his membership; he had only amateur experience. O'Block's answer was to start the American Board of Forensic Handwriting Analysts (ABFHA) and put himself in charge. 

A number of people allowed their names to be used on the stationery as "board members" but some said they resigned when they discovered that O'Block was passing out "certifications" behind their backs for a hefty fee, which he kept. Several called him a "crook" or "con artist." And O'Block's selection for the ABFHA's "national training director" was a high school graduate who claimed the ability to enlarge women's breasts through hypnosis. However, even this individual wrote that he resigned because he believed O'Block to be unethical. The real corporate board of the ABFHA — and later the ACFEI — was O'Block and a couple of his relatives.

Realizing the small market for handwriting analysts, O'Block changed the name to the American Board of Forensic Examiners and subsequently to the American College of Forensic Examiners International, and began other "certifications." He uses the names of mostly legitimate experts as "advisory board" members to create an aura of credibility, while limiting their authority to that which O'Block gives them. That's how the ACFE became aware of him.

He invited me to "serve" on his board years ago, emphasizing that the position had no duties and there were no actual meetings. However, he stated emphatically that I would have the "honor" of being included on his letterhead. I declined. Then O'Block obtained a copy of the ACFE's copyrighted member directory and solicited money from 3,800 CFEs, all without the ACFE's knowledge or consent. This led to a lawsuit settled out of court by the insurance carriers.

From that time, we went our separate ways. But O'Block's name would pop up frequently with bad press. In one instance, his lack of confirming the bona fides of applicants led one skeptic to successfully getting his pet cat "certified;" another time, it was an incarcerated prisoner. "Frontline" interviewed a former ACFEI executive who said that 99 percent of applicants get a credential, and the main criteria was whether your check cleared the bank. He quit in disgust.

At this writing, O'Block sells 12 different "certifications" using the names of about 200 individuals as "advisory board" members. It is highly doubtful that any of them have done their due diligence to know with whom they are dealing. As to the people holding these "certifications," it could be argued that they can be divided into two groups: those who are not aware of O'Block's background and those who do not care.

But as an ACFE member, you should care. If you serve as an expert witness, be aware that in a number of reported instances, O'Block's "experts" have been blindsided on the stand about their affiliation with him because of his background and the ease with which they have obtained his "certifications." The same thing could happen with a prospective client or employer.

You do not need to be told how difficult it is to obtain the CFE credential; you earned it and have every right to be proud. In nearly a quarter century of our existence, no one has ever branded the ACFE a "credential mill." Your independently elected Board of Regents alone sets the standards for admission into the ACFE — not the staff or me.

I am not writing to you because the ACFEI is a competitor; it isn't. Rather, it is my duty to share with you information that could adversely affect you, your reputation and your livelihood. While holding a respected credential can enhance your career, one that's not is likely to have the opposite effect. So know the facts when choosing your affiliations.

Now you have the necessary information to tell interested parties why the similarity between the ACFE and the ACFEI stops with the initials. Know that the preceding is not speculation or conjecture; it is the confirmed truth. An organization can be no stronger than its leadership. That's why the tone at the top is so important. Or, as a salty old boatswain's mate told me when I was a young sailor, a fish rots from the head.

Dr. Joseph T. Wells, CFE, CPA, is founder and Chairman of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. 

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