I'm a CFE

Timothy Pikas, CFE

Special agent, U.S. Department of Education Office of the Inspector General

Timothy Pikas has spent his career fighting fraud on behalf of various U.S. governmental agencies, including the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of the Interior. Along the way, the 2021 Certified Fraud Examiner of the Year learned that a solid fraud case takes time to build, and he counsels fellow CFEs to keep the faith and remain patient when conducting their own fraud examinations.

I was born and raised in California. For most of my young life, I played baseball, but I stopped playing in college and focused on fitness. In high school, I wanted to be an arson investigator. But it wasn’t until after I graduated college and became a federal agent that I knew I wanted to investigate fraud.

I began my career investigating crime, fraud, counterterrorism and counterintelligence for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (2001-2011). Then I worked in various offices of the inspector general, first at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, followed by the Department of Defense, the Department of Interior and now the Department of Education.

I focus on criminal and civil investigations pertaining to fraud, waste and abuse in Department of Education programs. Our investigations include federal student aid fraud, charter school fraud and fraudulent billing of contracts. We first test an allegation by reviewing documents and conducting interviews. If we determine there is criminal or civil misconduct, we then coordinate with the Department of Justice and other agencies that might be impacted. Throughout the investigation, we review documents, serve subpoenas and conduct operational activities, such as surveillance, serving search warrants, conducting more interviews and possibly obtaining an indictment.

When I worked in the Department of the Interior Office of the Inspector General, I focused on fraud, waste and abuse related to oil and gas companies using federal lands and minerals. We investigated failure to pay federal royalties, falsified safety and environmental inspection reports and federal leases used in other fraud schemes. We worked with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigations Division on multiple investigations along the Gulf of Mexico.

No matter how many safeguards are in place, or how tireless people are in managing federal programs, someone is always seeking ways to exploit vulnerabilities and commit fraud. It seems like a never-ending battle, but thousands of federal law enforcement personnel are working hard to prevent fraud.

It doesn’t matter who receives credit for the outcome of an investigation. What matters is preventing fraud and ensuring someone doesn’t do it again. The success of any investigation is the result of multiple people working together. We might have a lead agent, but everyone contributes with their own special knowledge. Analysts retrieve and ease the reading of data, agents conduct surveillance, computer forensic investigators recover evidence from a device and supervisors provide necessary support.

My personal motto is "truth, justice and hard work."

I’ve known about the CFE program throughout my career but did not earn the credential until I started working in the offices of inspector general. Since they focused on fraud, waste and abuse, I decided it would be a good time to earn my CFE credential and leverage the ACFE’s training to improve my chances of running a successful investigation. ACFE training has provided a framework to learn from and share experiences about successful investigations. I’ve often gone back to past ACFE trainings when I’m stuck or need an idea for how to further an investigation.

My advice is: be patient. A fraud investigation takes time. I’ve worked traditional criminal investigations where we immediately found the smoking gun and obtained a confession. But fraud investigations require more analysis and attention to detail. Putting together the facts and circumstances to justify probable cause for a search or arrest warrant can take longer. You also must rely on outside entities such as grand juries for subpoenas and inspectors general, which is time-consuming. I’ve had investigations run for years before seeing the indictment, arrest, prosecution and sentencing of a fraudster.

Also don’t forget that someone is impacted regardless of the type of fraud. It’s easy to emphasize the criminal act, but it’s also easy to forget that fraud impacted the victim. My focus always is to help those who otherwise cannot help themselves, whether it is innocent victims trying to make ends meet or government educational programs.

My personal motto is “truth, justice and hard work.” And my favorite quote is from the movie “Rocky Balboa”: “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” (“Rocky Balboa,” 2006.)

My family and I volunteer at the Denver Rescue Mission every week, and I volunteer at the U.S. Air Force Academy, conducting applicant interviews on behalf of the Academy. We enjoy going to concerts and listening to all varieties of music, including classic rock, heavy metal and yacht rock. We also love going to sporting events. We couldn’t do many of these activities because of the pandemic, but we are ready to go back out there.

Jennifer Liebman is assistant editor of Fraud Magazine. Contact her at jliebman@ACFE.com.