Federal Fraud Hunters on Their Symbiosis with Social Science

Old-fashioned rotary phone with SIPR logo where dial sits

Fraud is a social phenomenon, and much as we might first look to immunology to battle a viral outbreak, we might first look to accounting to combat fraud. But just as we learned with COVID-19, where public health is largely a job for social and behavioral insights, so too is overseeing the trillions the United States is spending on COVID relief.

And so we interviewed Brian D. Miller, director of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR), and Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Auditing Jean Saint-Elin, to talk about their thoughts on the importance of the social sciences in government oversight. An earlier post featured the history and mission of the SIGPR office.

The interview was conducted over Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.

Maxine Terry: Can you walk us through how you begin your investigative process? From the very beginning of when you’re looking into an actor in the beginning stages of an investigation, what do you look for?

Brian Miller: We didn’t want to wait for hotline complaints, where you wait for insiders to come forward. In the IG world, inside information is golden. With a five-year charter, we couldn’t wait to do that. From the start, we were actively looking at data points, getting data. One of the first agreements I had that we reported in our 60-day report and then in our initial quarterly reports, was our agreements with other law enforcement agencies and we get information that way through agreements, so we can get data to see if people are defrauding the system.

Jean Saint-Elin: We use data to decide if this is suspicious. We go through a vetting process. We look at the regulations in place and carefully look at them to make sure these individuals are actually incompliant with what they need to be doing. And then if they continue to look bad, then we initiate a case.

Brian Miller and Jean Saint-Elin
Brian Miller, left, and Jean Saint-Elin

Terry: Is there a typical report or investigation in your experience working in the oversight space?

Saint-Elin: There is no typical audit or investigation. They’re all different. One of the things that remain the same, is that we always rely on is that criminals are greedy. They may start off with a good idea of really trying to beat the system, but they’re greed over-surpasses them. That’s where we take advantage of that. We study their approaches. We study their methodology. Although their processes are often the same, there are so many different areas of fraud. There’s no specific check list that we go through.

Miller: There are some issues that seem constant with every IG’s office. There are sometimes challenges getting access to information. There are so many unique aspects to this particular job, and we are focused mainly on making sure we deter and stop and prevent people from defrauding the pandemic relief programs. Every case is a little bit different. They are taking advantage of a program one way or another, but as Jean said, they are kind of unique. As many programs as there are, there are as many different ways of defrauding a program. And there are a lot of moving parts in these loan programs and programs under the CARES Act.

Terry: As time as gone on and you’ve had more time to iron out some of the kinks, was it just a matter of getting more comfortable and figuring out what works to be more confident in the data? And over time, would you say you’ve become more confident with the data?

Saint-Elin: What we try to do is take that publicly available information data based on Freedom of Information Act purposes and what we do is make it more robust…so there is more confidence as we receive it. The data is cleaner, more organized as time goes on.

Terry: Do you see any possible crossover on the academic side of your work?

Saint-Elin: I do see a close link. Data analytics is a crucial thing we do.You see how even data analytics are taking part in even football. This is a wave of the future. Everything is data analytics these days and I think rightly so. We can get a lot of information from that, and I think it is the way to go.

Michael Todd [Social Science Space editor]: I was wondering if you have any tips for how to keep track of individual within a much larger set of data streams as you mash stuff up? What if you were going to talk to someone with a different outcome in mind (other than prosecution)?

Saint-Elin: There are things that things such as functions and commands that we utilize…depending on various databases, they may have the first name first where the last name is second or it might be the reverse…learning those methodologies and data analytics, statistics are very important and crucial to academia and learning this process to be able to deploy these methods when you’re working in analytics and data.

Todd: Are you only bring in data from federal or government databases? Or do you also look at Facebook?

Saint-Elin: Yes, we look at third-party data.

Miller: Social media is God’s gift to law enforcement.

Terry: After working on a report, what are next steps? What is it like to hand off and pivot when you’ve been working on a report for so long?

Miller: To your previous question, I think I’d describe our relationship as symbiotic with social sciences because we rely on social sciences quite a bit and we hope to contribute to social sciences. We see their value and want to contribute. We do acknowledge our debt to social sciences and do want to in some way help.

In terms of handing off projects, with our five-year charter, we’re not going to be handing off that many projects when you have a prosecution that may be in the works for some time, especially if it is a complicated financial fraud.

Terry: How do you define success in your roles? Is there such a thing as a career-making type of finding?

Miller: I was a federal prosecutor at one point in my career and I could never tell which case was going to be a big case and which case is going to be a small case. You don’t really know until it is done. We are doing our best to identify the cases and the audits we think are significant and ones that are critical for Congress to know either how the program is working, how the program is not working, how to do the program differently or critical cases that we think are prosecutions that are going to send a deterrent message or catch someone who is just egregiously taking advantage of the programs.

We don’t have an eye on what’s going to get publicity or what’s going to be a big sensation. We like to keep our heads down and make the cases. If there’s a big deal that happens as a result, so be it. I think that’s true throughout the organization.

Saint-Elin: For me, every single case that we identify fraud is a huge success for me. We’re all taxpayers, we know what that’s all about and if we could stop any type of malfeasance, that’s a huge success.

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Maxine Terry

Maxine Terry is a corporate communications specialist with SAGE Publishing. She previously covered judiciary and housing policy as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

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