Bernadette Kakooza, CFE, is more than just an accomplished fraud fighter. As the first female Inspector General for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, she works hard for her geographic community as well as her anti-fraud community. In addition to spearheading investigations to save taxpayer money, she’s an active member of the Southeastern Michigan ACFE chapter and mentors fellow ACFE members.
How did you become passionate about fighting fraud?
As a child, I grew up with parents who instilled in me the value of education as well as family values of good manners (before man and God), knowledge (which makes you a complete person) and hard work (which gives you comfort in life). I tapped those personal values to pursue a profession that promotes ethical values in the workplace.
As both a taxpayer and public servant, I wanted to use my passion to promote integrity, accountability and efficiency in our use of the public resources we’re entrusted with. I view my profession as a steward in assisting with improving internal processes and mitigating the opportunities for those who do unethical or fraudulent activities that harm our school district.
You are the first female to hold the Inspector General designation in Detroit Public Schools Community District. What steps led you to that position?
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and possess an MBA from the University of Detroit Mercy with a concentration in business management and accounting. My education prepared me well for my current interests. For more than 20 years, I have served in various capacities within the school district — internal auditor, accountant, senior forensic auditor and fraud investigator. All my prior work experiences grew the enthusiasm within me that has shaped me into the fraud fighter I am today.
I was appointed Inspector General (IG) in March 2014. As a female IG, I realize that we possess the same energy, passion, charisma, drive and commitment as our male counterparts, and have the same ability to drive change within the agencies we serve. Although the IG script may seem to have been written for men in the past, it is time that the glass ceiling is broken down. as Female IGs are now taking up more positions across the local, state and national levels. The city of Detroit currently has a female IG too, with whom I enjoy a great professional relationship.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District had a documented history of corruption, lack of accountability and internal control gaps for a while. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you came in and implemented new systems and training to combat fraud?
I credit my predecessors, who were both former FBI managers — one being a former Special Agent in Charge, and the other, a Supervisory Special Agent — who stood up the Office of Inspector General within this school District, and established most of the investigative procedures that my team and I use to this day. Of course, there were districtwide challenges at the beginning, but the current superintendent has implemented policies and provided administrative guidelines, which help facilitate our operations.
A few challenges still exist because these policies are not widely communicated to employees. Due to that breakdown in communication, one of the systems I implemented was to expand the scope of my office’s operations to include a proactive compliance training and outreach program, which provides training in ethical conduct and fraud awareness among district employees and school board members. The main problem is that this training is not mandatory, so I keep pushing for more fraud awareness within our district because we must be realistic — fraud exists in every organization, but we can’t tackle the problem unless we’re willing to speak about it. The more training my office can provide to district employees to raise awareness of fraud trends and ethics violations, the more equipped they become to join the OIG in its mission to prevent, detect and deter fraud, waste and abuse within the school system. I am optimistic that the school district leadership recognizes my office’s function as a partner, and not an adversary, in these efforts to maintain an ethical culture within our school district.
What is a memorable case or project that you have worked on?
One complex case that immediately comes to mind was a successful joint investigation in 2015 that I worked on with the Detroit FBI Public Corruption Unit to develop evidence which led to the arrest and conviction of a district vendor who operated a $2.7 million kickback scheme involving several school district principals. This case attracted nationwide attention and was even featured on CNBC’s show American Greed.
We investigated approximately 15 school principals and a District administrator, who were found to have taken cash gifts from the vendor in exchange for authorizing payments by the district to the vendor. The payments were for school supplies that were ordered from the vendor but were not delivered to the schools. The investigation revealed that the vendor would invoice the district, obtain the principals’ approvals for payment and when he received payment from the district, he’d split the proceeds with the principals. Overall, this investigation (and many others that we’ve conducted) underscored the importance of partnerships and how working together with law enforcement entities — as well as the cooperation we receive from county, state and federal offices — has been very beneficial to our operations.
As the first female in your position, do you have any advice for women in the anti-fraud field?
The anti-fraud field is a tough one, and especially so because fraud itself is constantly evolving and we must keep up with the fraudsters out there. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or just starting out, there’s always something to learn in the anti-fraud field and everyone must be alert for the fraud trends and red flags.
As a female leader, it is important to not let your gender define you or limit your aspirations in reaching out to do your best — whether working alongside male peers or dealing with male subordinates. There is no one best leadership style, and the “male way” of doing things may differ from the female style, but the two styles are not mutually exclusive.
Now that I have a daughter in college and two others in high school, I am beginning to see that my efforts have amounted to something. And those somethings are living, breathing creatures who don’t stop at anything to pursue what they want in their individual lives; and hopefully, will make great contributions to the world someday. Being female is not even a factor in describing the successes they each inspire aspire to achieve. I am so blessed to have my daughters in my life because they help me understand myself as a working mother. In this intimate journey of self-discovery, I have learned that I can still pursue a career alongside the pace of my children’s lives. So I hope that any young female who is 15-20 years behind me in this profession can be inspired to appreciate the connection between balancing their family lives and pursuing their professional dreams, as I’m sure that those who are a few steps further ahead of me can relate.
How has being a CFE impacted your professional development?
I cherish the opportunities it provides to me for continuing education through the online webinars and annual ACFE conferences with increasingly powerful speakers each year. I view these forums as opportunities for both personal and professional growth, so it’s not just about earning CPE credits, but the wealth of knowledge I gain through participation which improves my skills as a fraud examiner. Having the designation as a Certified Fraud Examiner is a plus too because it shows others that I put a lot of study and specialized training hours into acquiring and maintaining this designation.
What do you like best about being an ACFE member?
I’m most grateful for the professional networking, opportunities to learn more about the anti-fraud industry and interact with other members — especially within our local Southeastern Michigan chapter of the ACFE, where I attend monthly meetings as well as presented on fraud-related topics. I have met and established strong friendships with wonderful individuals through my chapter network; some of whom have contributed a lot to providing me with resources to assist with my work. I’m also grateful to the ACFE which gave me an opportunity to give back as a mentor for other CFEs. Having realized the opportunities this membership presents, I always encourage my subordinates to pursue membership in our local chapter as well as the national ACFE.
What activities or hobbies do you like to do outside of work?
I love to read, bake, go to the movies (which I’ve missed for the last year!) and travel with my kids to visit family overseas.
ACFE membership is open to individuals of all job functions, industries and levels of experience who are interested in the prevention, detection and deterrence of fraud. If you want to level up your anti-fraud career, we can help.