Is There Any Value In Unfounded Or Unsustained Cases?

While all agencies routinely sustain cases that end up going to a criminal or administrative hearing, the majority of cases are more likely to end with unfounded or unsustained dispositions. Do these cases have any value to the agency? Yes. They absolutely hold a weight that you can exploit to improve your unit and agency.

As a leader of an investigative team, it can be easy to fall into the trap of equating sustained cases as a win and unsustained cases as a loss. We prove a case, send it to the local district attorney’s office, and the bad actor gets prosecuted. That’s a win. On a basic level, this makes perfect sense.

If we believe someone violated a statute and policy, but our investigation could not prove it, then that’s a loss, right? Not so fast.

Leaders of investigative units want to show their team is providing value to their agency. When we equate proven cases with wins and unproven cases as losses, we are shortsighted and missing out on a huge opportunity to shape and influence our agency.

Leaders need to get clear about what constitutes a win for their agency. If your agency’s goals are to combat fraud, waste, and abuse, for example, then focusing on sustained cases or successful prosecutions can omit some of the most significant opportunities that will ever cross your desk.

While all agencies define “success” differently, some common attributes include cases that show your agency is making progress in its fight against fraud, waste, and abuse.

Successful cases have one or more of the following attributes:

The case provides positive publicity that shows your agency is proactive in combating fraud, waste, and abuse.
The case is used as an example when pushing new legislation to update weak or vague statutes to combat fraud, waste, and abuse schemes.
The case precipitates introducing or revising policies and procedures to prevent or deter similar fraud, waste, and abuse opportunities.
Successful cases result in cost savings to the agency. This monetary value means that cases can expose the cost of some fraud, waste, or abuse scheme that, when corrected, will result in some cost savings, both for the agency and the use of taxpayer dollars.
Cases that highlight the agency is looking into a particular fraud, waste, or abuse scheme can deter the same behavior from happening in other agency programs. While sustained cases can provide some of these benefits, there is absolutely no reason any unfounded or unproven case cannot offer these same benefits.

Although unproven or not sustained, these types of cases can provide a powerful impetus to promote change in the system, something which will always put the agency in a positive light. In my experience, some of my agency’s biggest wins have come from unsustained cases precisely because the fraud, waste, or abuse scheme was designed around weak or non-existence statutes or policies.

My agency routinely investigates highly complex cases that are in the public eye. Even if an allegation is unproven, we often uncover possible fraud schemes that point to a weakness in the rules governing the perceived wrongdoing. We capitalize on these findings by using a tool we call “risk findings.” When appropriate, even though a case might be unproven, we document the risk findings contributing to the possible fraud scheme. In essence, this tool is saying, “although we could not prove this case, or although there were no statutes or policies prohibiting this specific behavior, we have discovered a weakness in policy and law that provides an opportunity for fraud, waste, or abuse. Thus, we are documenting these risk findings so that procedural or legal updates can be made that will prevent, deter, or punish those engaging in this same scheme in the future.”

The key here is for investigative leaders to recognize that those who worry about whether a specific case is “won” or “lost” are shortsighted. The truth is that every case provides essential information that can address critical issues in every part of every program within an agency if risk findings are used to update policies, procedures, and laws. With this mindset, any case, sustained or unsustained, can promote change and growth in the agency.

Focusing on specific issues can result in cost savings to your agency for the specific allegations you investigated. But why stop at finding one person or company who operated questionably? Why not use the realization of a particular fraud scheme to update procedures that will make all occurrences liable for mismanagement or wrongdoing. This type of investigative management is very proactive and uses every case to bolster its ability to sustain future misconduct allegations.

Stop thinking about how much money you recouped because your investigation caught one person committing Fraud Scheme A. Rather, inform your agency about Fraud Scheme A, encouraging the agency to prevent, deter, or punish anyone else from engaging in that scheme. Focusing on your case will always provide less cost savings than fixing the issue’s root. Hopefully, with this understanding, you can see the “win” of a single case is nothing compared to the actions that can stop the same behavior agency-wide.

Of course, not every case will produce significant risk findings. Still, every case has the potential to provide several positive results for your agency, regardless of the disposition of the case.

Knowing how to capitalize on these instances is one of the essential responsibilities of investigative leadership.

Does your agency have a feedback loop that takes intelligence gathered from investigations and pushes it to policy writers or legislative updates? Make this your next priority and take your unit’s effectiveness to a whole other level.

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