Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times
"If the worst thing you are going to do is fire people, they are going to keep stealing from you."
— CRAIG L. GREENE, Fraud investigator
It only confirmed what the average Joe has known all along--that for every $2 fee extracted at the ATM, somewhere a group of bank executives is whooping it up on Chateaubriand, big fat Cubans and champagne cocktails. All on the company's dime.
Only in this case it wasn't just champagne cocktails, it was also five bottles of wine, the cheapest of which ran $2,000, the most expensive, a breathtaking $17,500. Days after the $62,700 bar bill was paid at London's high-end Petrus (the restaurant was so impressed it didn't even charge for the six dinners that accompanied the wine), it was the talk of the financial district.
Several months later, five of the six freewheeling Barclay's Bank investment bankers, who had initially claimed they were paying their own epicurean way, were caught trying to sneak the bill onto their company expense accounts. They got the heave-ho from Barclay's, and their exploits were soon the talk of the States. Because who doesn't love a good expense-account story?
In the corporate world, such tales are as common, and as epic, as the fish story. Who hasn't heard the one about the man who expensed his 3-year-old's $20,000 birthday party or the woman who submitted her Vera Wang wedding dress because she had invited a few clients to the nuptials? Some of the stories end in disgrace--the leader of Scotland's Parliament recently resigned when it was discovered he had been claiming expenses to cover the costs of an office he was then subletting--but most of them do not.
And that, along with the almost farcical amount of the bankers' bill--forget the $13,000 dessert wine, they paid seven bucks for a pack of cigarettes--is what makes the Barclay's story so compelling.
Padding expense reports is as time-honored as cheating on taxes. George Washington famously refused to take a salary as general of the Continental Army, but he racked up some $449,000 in expenses during eight years of service, which works out to more than $4 million today. The mostly un-itemized expenses submitted to the Continental Congress included $3,776 for "sundry Exp.'s paid ... on the Retreat of the Army thro' the Jerseys into Pennsylvania."
While few modern-day toilers admit to doing it themselves, almost everyone knows of "this one guy" who was absolutely fearless when it came to toting up those Travel and Entertainment columns. (Although no one was willing to have their name used when recounting these tales for fear of career reprisals.) A former financial officer at a Fortune 500 company said he saw reimbursement requests for "customer entertainment" that included $500 for an outing to a strip club and $2,500 for Super Bowl tickets. A mid-level investment firm executive remembered weekend fishing getaways with clients that ran $10,000. A salesman for an East Coast tech company knew a supervisor who organized a spur-of-the-moment gambling trip to Bermuda that set the company back $25,000.
A former oil company executive told of colleagues who expensed their daily work commutes and of one regional manager who submitted such high mileage requests that, upon review, it was discovered that there simply were not enough hours in the day for him to have driven as far as he had claimed.
In journalism, the examples are even more colorful: the East Coast magazine editors rumored to expense their Armani and Prada. The food writer who believed a $400 bottle of Merlot was necessary in his quest to find the perfect hamburger. The freelancer who, while doing a story on a sporting event in Thailand, tried to expense a trip to a local brothel.
Though such expenses are far from routine, people submit them because they usually get away with it. When challenged about costs, the supervisor who led the Bermuda excursion righteously defended his decision. "I just brought in $5 million in business," he said, according to an eyewitness. "Shut up."
"It really comes down to discretion," said the former Fortune 500 financial officer. "You take it on a case-by-case basis. What kind of customer are we talking about? How outrageous is the expense? How much business do we do with them? The fact is there really aren't any hard and fast rules with expense accounts."
But most companies do have an auditing system. For almost three years, Jeanette Ourada was the international audit manager for Arco before it was acquired by British Petroleum. And the first thing she always did upon arrival at one of the company's far-flung offices was ask to see the personal expense accounts.
"The dollar amount is small," she said, "but if there's abuse there, there's probably going to be abuse everywhere. Expense accounts are the canary in the coal mine."
(Her analysis is certainly borne out at Enron, the new model of corporate fraud and dysfunction. When President Jeffrey K. Skilling took over last year, one of his first decisions was to approve all expense accounts without review.)
The fraud Ourada discovered over the years ran from the sublime to the ridiculous. At one point during the sale of Arco to British Petroleum, she said, there was something like $17 million in employee moving advances unaccounted for. "We tried to track everyone down," she said, "but there were two sets of books at that point, and it was very confusing. I remember one very high-level executive saying to me, "Try to prove that I got that money. Just try.' I was really shocked at that."
And, at that point, it took a lot to shock her. She had already seen a daughter's piano lessons expensed, and a spouse's tennis pro; she had seen receipts for mountain bikes and birthday presents. One supervisor had expensed the cleaning of his pool.
Most of the perpetrators got off with a warning and Ourada acknowledged how easy it is to cheat. Prevention works better than detection, she said; now a financial executive at Universal Studios, she routinely calls her employees to ask about an item or two, "just so they know that I am actually looking at them."
In many cases, there's a good reason for lavish expense accounts--clients like to be wooed, stellar employees like to be rewarded, and wooing and rewarding doesn't come cheap. But according to fraud investigators, most padding is not about a desire to achieve. It's about greed.
"People love to spend other people's money," said Craig L. Greene, a fraud investigator and partner with Chicago-based Rome Associates.
Employees at all levels also see expense reports as an opportunity to even the scales, he said. Someone didn't get the raise she wanted so she takes it out in mileage or in really nice dinners.
"You'd be surprised how many executives, I mean top executives, think they are special and that they are only taking back what is owed them," said Greene, who has written extensively for accounting journals about falsified expense reports.
According to Ourada, employees also just get used to a certain level of perks. An executive who flies first class internationally finds it impossible to fly business domestically, a negotiator who is put up at a posh hotel while closing a big deal then expects five-star treatment all the time. "It is amazing how quickly people get used to being treated well," she said.
The most ubiquitous form of fraud Ourada saw, she said, involved a supervisor asking an underling to submit the supervisor's expenses, which the supervisor then approved. But fudging comes in all varieties. According to Greene, trading in a first-class ticket for coach and pocketing the difference is easy and popular, as is counterfeiting receipts, or simply buying blank receipts at an office supply store and filling them in. Greene said one vice president at a Fortune 500 company fabricated receipts in this manner to the tune of $40,000.
Modern technology, which now includes electronic expense filing, has made it easier for companies to track employee reports and has no doubt discouraged the filing of some bogus expense reports, Greene said. But a machine is no replacement for human supervision, he added.
"Employees have to know someone is watching the store," he said. "And they have to know there will be consequences."
Consequences for low-level employees who commit expense report fraud usually means termination. In the past, companies have shied away from prosecuting executives, even those who may have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars, fearing bad publicity and legal costs that could exceed the amount stolen. Typically, wayward executives are persuaded to make some form of restitution and then are quietly dismissed, Greene said.
But after the Enron scandal, that may be changing, he said.
"If the worst thing you are going to do is fire people, they are going to keep stealing from you," Greene said. "You want to send a message? Throw a couple of executives in jail."
The Barclay bankers, meanwhile, are updating their résumés and living down the inevitable "and can you bring the wine?" jokes. They initially threatened to sue Petrus for invading their privacy, but that prospect seems to have faded--it's a restaurant, after all, not a doctor's office or a confessional. Still, the owner claims he wasn't the one who alerted the media, although he did save the now famous receipt as a memento. And a few phone calls to various local upscale eateries, including the Ivy, Campanile and Matsuhisa, revealed that there is not now, nor has there ever been, similarly outrageous expense-account spending in L.A.
And you can take that to the bank.
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Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times
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