‘An accountant used to be the guy in the green eyeshade sitting in the corner,” says Richard Ellison, chairman of accounting and legal studies at Middlesex Community College. But not anymore. “Now accounting is cool,” he says.

Accountants are now key figures in everything from terrorism investigations to messy high-profile divorces to corporate scandals. By tradition and training, however, not every accountant is attuned to ferreting out malfeasance. “Auditors don’t find fraud, they find discrepancies,” says Ellison. Uncovering — and proving — fraud is the specialty of forensic accountants, and surprisingly, this relatively new, potentially lucrative field is open not only to CPAs, but also to holders of associate’s degrees who have taken some accounting courses.

To prepare accountants and career changers for jobs in forensic accounting, Middlesex is offering, for the first time, a curriculum in forensic accounting. The first course, Fraud Examination, begins on Tuesday, September 4, at 6 p.m. at the college’s main campus in Edison. Cost: $325 plus textbooks. Call 732-548-6000.

Ellison teaches the class, and he is responsible for bringing the forensic accounting program to the college, which is now the only community college in the state offering it.

“I began getting information about forensic accounting, and then I did some Internet research,” he says. He found a program at the University of West Virginia, funded by a federal grant, that was developing a graduate level curriculum in the subject. Working on the project were 40 specialists in all aspects of financial malfeasance, including white collar crime.

Because of its grant status, the panel amassing information on forensic accounting, and on how to arrange an effective curriculum around it, had a mandate to make its findings available to any educational institution. Ellison took advantage, and went to West Virginia to study the curriculum. He then attended conferences on the relatively new discipline before adapting the material for undergraduate instruction.

There are to be six courses in the for-credit forensic accounting program. They will cover psychological, legal, and computer aspects of the subject. Students will learn how to find, evaluate, and handle evidence. Eventually Ellison plans to have at least one section of each course available every semester.

So far, he is enrolling CPAs — “I had two in my office today,” he says three weeks before his first class is scheduled to meet. But he is also signing up MBAs and career changers from a variety of backgrounds. “It doesn’t hurt to have some psychology background — to get into the mind of the criminal,” he says.

The course is attracting what he terms “adult learners.” Here, as in other courses that he teaches, he is seeing a lot of people who are working full time and are also going to school full time. “It’s instant gratification,” he says. “They’re eager to get started.”

Those who choose to get started in a career in computer forensics should find a wide open job market, says Ellison, citing the Enron scandals as a key element in changing the whole approach to accounting. “Accounting firms are opening forensics departments,” he says. In addition, corporations, banks, and federal agencies are hiring forensic accountants.

Ellison expects that the best qualified graduates of the new program will earn salaries “in the low six figures.”

Appreciating forensic accounting for its computer-age appeal, Ellison nevertheless wants students to remember that the science has a rich history. “Sherlock Holmes,” he proclaims, “was the first forensic accountant.”

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