Vices, vanity, fantasy: Joanne Harrison fraud saga highlights calls for public’s right to know about serial con artists
Republished from Stuff News New Zealand – Reporter John Weekes
Different fraudsters have different drives, different vices, different victims. But fraud investigators agree on one thing: Although major public agency scandals like Joanne Harrison’s can reverberate for years, countless other cases are covered-up, as companies worried about saving face cut deals enabling fraudsters to find new victims.
The smartest fraudsters are probably those we’ll never know about. They don’t get caught like Joanne Harrison did. But before she was busted conning the Ministry of Transport, Harrison persuaded a judge to give her name suppression, tricked employers with doctored CVs, and used her influence and cronies to outflank her pursuers. Contriving new identities, lying on official documents and playing people off in Machiavellian games most probably takes a lot of time and energy. But since con artists often have trouble telling the truth or being open about their past, mystery still surrounds the psychology underpinning many fraudsters.
And multiple fraud experts say many corporate victims simply cover-up fraud, prioritising company reputation over the public’s right to know about con artists. The ministry went public with information about Harrison’s con job, when Stuff broke the story in 2016 and Harrison was understood to be on the run in Canada. And a new investigation has discovered Harrison changed her name to Joanna Middleton, using that identity to apply for jobs at two major companies in the UK, lying about her past. But an unknown number of con artists slip through the cracks.
Phil Jones has studied fraudsters during his time with police in Auckland and London, and now in the private sector. The former detective sergeant runs Omni Risk and Omega Investigations. He does not believe narcissism or the thrill of outsmarting other people is a common thread among con artists. Instead, he describes “Walter Mitty behaviour” after a James Thurber character who disappears into fantasy worlds. “They believe they’re in a different world. They believe they’re bulletproof. They convince themselves that what they’re doing is right.”
Jones says fraudster behaviour is often pathological – from the word pathology, describing disease characteristics.“They’re just pathological liars. They can’t help themselves. They’re pathological fraudsters.” From past interrogations, he knows fraudsters aren’t easily coerced into making confessions. “You know that they’re going to sit there and lie, and lie, and lie.”
Jones says an entitlement complex is common among fraudsters. With insurance company fraud, some offenders believe they have a right to defraud insurers. For others, revenge is a driving force. A slighted employee might harbour resentments, and decide defrauding their employer is the only way to right wrongs.
Jones says some fraudsters are hooked on gambling, drugs, or prostitutes. Others might be funding an illicit relationship, which could help investigators. Make it clear you know a fraudster’s been having an affair, and you might find a confession more forthcoming, he says.
Jones says if a skilled, serial fraudster lands a senior job, it can be hard to dislodge them, no matter how many people raise concerns. Harrison, as general manager of organisational development, had a powerful role at the transport ministry. “When somebody’s so high, nobody will challenge her… She’ll push them aside.”
Jones developed a fraud risk assessment tool for employers, but has trouble selling it. “Nobody’s interested until it’s too late,” he says. Other experts echo his concerns about slack vetting. When Harrison sought work at the ministry, there was arguably no incentive for her to fess up to her dodgy past.