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Back home to the ACFE

An interview with Liseli Pennings, CFE, deputy training director at the ACFE and LEGA liaison

After 16 years as a U.S. special agent, Liseli Pennings, CFE, returns to the ACFE to help worldwide agencies fight fraud and work efficiently with private sectors.

Liseli Mundie was juggling. In 1996, while taking 15 hours of courses to earn her political science degree at the University of Texas at Austin, she also worked 30 to 40 hours per week as a hostess at a local restaurant to pay her way through school. However, her fatigue didn't show on her face. In fact, Jeanette LeVie, CFE, a diner, was impressed with her bright, professional demeanor.

LeVie, now the ACFE's vice president – administration, gave Mundie her business card and asked her if she might be interested in talking to her about a job at the ACFE. She later interviewed Mundie and offered her a member services representative position. Mundie accepted, and the course of her life changed. "I've hired for many positions at the ACFE, and I always notice people who exhibit superior people skills," LeVie now says.

While at the ACFE from 1996 through 1999, Mundie was able to learn about law enforcement and feed her childhood desire to be a special agent for a U.S. agency.

"I wanted to investigate and solve crime, and do so in an international arena," she says. "I attended a career fair as a senior in college and passed the special agent exams prior to graduating and then passed a battery of tests and exams thereafter."

Mundie (later Liseli Pennings after she married in 2007) got her hard-earned wish and became a special agent with the Washington, D.C., Field Office of the U.S. Department of State. She spent the next 16 years as a career special agent and diplomat with the Department of State Diplomatic Security Service and the U.S. Treasury Inspector General's Office for Tax Administration. During that time, she was a law enforcement attaché in Europe and Latin America, a resident agent-in-charge in Texas, agent-in-charge of special events overseas and protective details, and managed teams of more than 90 professionals and multimillion-dollar budgets and contracts.

It is an honor to return to the launching place that fueled my desire to pursue a career in the anti-fraud world."

Pennings has stuffed her years of federal service with varied and rich activities. She was security advisor to U.S. ambassadors; oversaw the liaison and logistics for a visit of President Obama to Chile; was the agent-in-charge of the International Police Cooperation Center for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; led a multi-agency intellectual property right investigation yielding the largest amount of counterfeit prescriptions seized in the U.S.; and even met the Dalai Lama, former U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, and, most importantly, her Dutch husband, Hubert, when she was stationed in The Netherlands.

"Conducting complex investigations, traveling and living overseas, being an integral part of diplomacy abroad, and being a fly on the wall in observance of history-in-the-making were ingredients that made my career as a special agent very appealing," Pennings says. "The fast-paced, think-on-your-feet, dynamic career perfectly matched my professional aspirations."

Pennings now brings her experience and skills back to the ACFE as its deputy training director and Law Enforcement and Government Alliance (LEGA) liaison at ACFE Headquarters in Austin, Texas.

"It is an honor to return to the launching place that fueled my desire to pursue a career in the anti-fraud arena," Pennings says. "I am fortunate to work with some of the same talented people that were at ACFE when I worked there previously. It is equally as impressive to witness the ACFE's exponential growth and the impact they continue to make in the anti-fraud world on a grand, global scale.

"This position captures the facets that I loved about my career as a special agent: teaching, involvement in the anti-fraud field on a global scale, innovation and making a difference by helping agencies and businesses proactively protect themselves against fraud. I'm thrilled to be a part of the ACFE again," she says.

Pennings is a native of El Paso, Texas, on the border of Mexico. She's fluent in Spanish — her first language — and Dutch and proficient in French and Portuguese. Pennings and her husband have four young daughters.

She spoke to Fraud Magazine from her ACFE office.

FM: Why should a governmental agency consider joining the ACFE Law Enforcement and Government Partnership?
        LP: Government agencies have a large span of control that encompass bureaus that are very specialized. Employees have very specific skillsets within these specialized bureaus, and many are not trained in the numerous facets of fraud, despite being impacted by fraud. Law enforcement officers are not usually trained or skilled in financial and accounting principles and related fraud schemes, which makes fraud detection outside of their areas of specialization challenging.

Conversely, financial and accounting professionals who work with contracts, invoices and other financial transactions, also are not trained to detect fraud, which makes government agencies susceptible to becoming victims of fraud at varying levels of operation. The ACFE bridges this gap between the investigative and financial arenas and better prepares government agencies to succeed in the fight against fraud.

The LEGA serves as a means through which agencies can cross-train their departments to proactively detect and deter the ever-growing reaches of fraud while simultaneously obtaining special incentives and discounts through the partnership.

Law enforcement and government agencies, via the LEGA, can liaise with similar entities to obtain and share trends and best practices and also to interface with private industry. ACFE online fraud forums also provide avenues for exchange to include benchmarking and further expands resources for anti-fraud professionals.

FM: Can you describe new developments in the LEGA? 
        LP: The LEGA has acquired many new international and domestic partnerships. As our membership grows around the world, we are seeing new interest from agencies in Europe and in particular, Asia. We will host LEGA-focused seminars in the near future with topics that are geared towards challenges and areas of interest for law enforcement and government agencies.

FM: You've worked as an agent or officer for several U.S. federal agencies. How is that experience now helping as you begin to work with members and potential members of the LEGA?
        LP: During my 16 years as a special agent, I investigated various types of fraud: tax and internal investigations, passport and visa fraud, identity theft, drug and human trafficking cases, and cases involving money laundering and intellectual property violations. As a resident-agent-in-charge and an attaché overseas I supervised hundreds of cases and gained a wide breadth of knowledge of fraud.

I can identify with the challenges that fraud examiners face in various realms that impede the discovery and prosecution of fraud. Knowledge of fraud indicators, schemes, investigations and having experience with best practices to follow are as important as recognizing organizational limitations. My experience in both management and in the field as an agent in overseas and domestic fronts provides me a comprehensive view of how to fortify skills through the LEGA. Having knowledge of the innermost workings of governmental agencies and the interdepartmental functions help me identify training needs.

FM: Can you give some examples of inter-agency cooperation in the states and globally? What motivates and deters agencies to cooperate among themselves?
        LP: I personally witnessed successful interagency cooperation on most, if not all, investigations — namely complex, multi-agency cases. I investigated and managed hundreds of cases, and more than naught, I incorporated other law enforcement agencies so I could glean their specialized investigative tools to look into additional dimensions of the investigation.

One such investigation I managed was a large-scale, high-dollar, fraudulent tax return and passport fraud scheme that involved numerous law enforcement agencies. We were a large team that shared the same goal — just as ACFE LEGA partners share the same vision: fighting fraud.

This particular case necessitated close collaboration on various fronts because it spanned several U.S. states and was comprised of a fraud-ring network that involved dozens of individuals. The perpetrators were filing fraudulent federal tax returns on behalf of unknowing individuals with mailing addresses of members of the criminal enterprise. These accomplices, who received financial compensation, gave the tax return checks to runners who brought them back to the fraudsters. The fraudsters would cash them with altered U.S. passports at check-cashing facilities. The perpetrators made several million dollars during the course of the scheme.

We worked closely with numerous agencies on several fronts on cases involving passport and visa fraud, money laundering, human and drug trafficking, identity theft, and cases involving national security threats. I ensured my agents served on various task forces and assisted other agencies because the end goal was to detect, deter and dismantle fraud.

When working on investigations with an international nexus, complexities and details had a broader scope as procedures and laws differ from country to country. Finding a feasible path despite differing norms while meeting conflicting requirements could be challenging but very rewarding. One example is bringing fleeing felons overseas to justice. Working with foreign police and government ministry-level officers to collaborate on treaties and local laws to organize extraditions of felons were complex undertakings. However, time and again, I saw a common thread of serving the common good and fighting fraud across agencies and borders.

FM: What are some of the greatest needs of anti-fraud professionals at governmental agencies, and how do they differ from their counterparts in the private sector? 
        LP: I managed budgets and contracts, and oversaw many investigations with a financial nexus. I had to learn and navigate these aspects of my job on my own. But now my knowledge of the innermost workings of the government helps me address the important gap between the parallel yet disparate financial and investigative realms in the fraud world. The ACFE Law Enforcement and Government Partnership helps agencies fill this gap and bridge both worlds to ensure the detection and deterrence of fraud by equipping agencies with skillsets through ACFE training.

FM: What are some ways that fraud fighters in the private sector can help their peers in governmental agencies during fraud examinations?
        LP: Through communication, collaboration and understanding procedures essential to follow when a fraud examination is in its infancy, private-sector fraud examiners can work seamlessly with their special agent counterparts in the government sector. Approaching a fraud examination with the anticipation of it reaching prosecution will facilitate the process.

FM: What are some of your job's activities? Does it involve travel as you work with LEGA members and recruit other agencies?
        LP: I travel and teach a variety of courses, from many two-day, anti-fraud trainings to the CFE Exam Review Course, which allows me to engage with government and law enforcement agencies as the ACFE LEGA liaison. Meeting and interacting with these potential members is a great recruiting tool for the partnership. I am also actively engaged in mastering the many dimensions of the ACFE mission.

FM: What excites you as you ramp up your LEGA efforts? 
        LP: I am excited to help bridge the dichotomy found in the investigative and financial arenas that are present throughout law enforcement and government agencies. By bridging this gap on a large, international scale, anti-fraud practitioners have the potential to realize victories through the deterrence and detection of fraud. Being part of that mission is very rewarding.

Dick Carozza, CFE, is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. His email address is: dcarozza@ACFE.com.