Old habits die hard, and I can’t help but keep up with the law firm world. Today I read about a partner of a major law firm who submitted $120K in false expense reports over 5 years; $69K on fraudulent taxi cab receipts alone. Even for a big tipper, that’s a lot of cab fare.
The partner said he didn’t do it for personal gain, he was just too busy on important client work to try to deal with the firm’s complicated expense reporting procedures. I have no problem believing that the partner thought he was too busy to deal with procedures that he thought were too complicated.
The story took me right back to my days of law firm accounting, so I took a couple of aspirin. This scenario strikes fear in the heart of every accounting manager, because all firms have very busy, very important partners who think they should be exempt from the pesky and complicated internal controls. The problem is that while large law firms now operate like Corporate America, they are not publicly held. Their shareholders have names and faces and corner offices, and hover in your doorway asking WTF, because they own the place.
In my prior life a partner like this would come to me on occasion and express his or her feelings about my department and procedures. I would say “If someone in the firm embezzled $282,346.73 in petty cash based on ‘lost’ taxi receipts, who is the first person you would blame for not minding the shop?” Sometimes this resulted in a partner asking if I was accusing him of being a thief, but most of them understood what I was trying to say.
Even if I wanted to cut someone a break, there were layers of bureaucracy above me. At one of my firms, the woman who was ultimately responsible for policing expense reports was nothing short of legendary. She invented the word “scrutiny.” She was 95 pounds of suspicion, wise cracks and English as a second language. She was also smart and hilarious and I mostly adored her. Fortunately she was in an office thousands of miles away, because in person every day would have been a bit much.
When we did get together in person for meetings and such, my colleagues and I would pour appletinis down her throat and beg her to tell us stories of how she terrorized her colleagues in her previous career. Although Susie’s English was decent, she sometimes got things confused. For example, when she’d tell us stories she would conclude with “That’s all bridges under water now.” Sometimes I would use that very phrase when the CFO fussed at me on a conference call, and he would clear his throat and move on to the next item on the agenda.
Sans appletinis, it was not unusual for me to answer my phone and hear “WHAT YOU THINK YOU DOING?” in a rather unpleasant screech. I would say “Hey Susie, how are you?” I would put the phone down while she screamed some more, and then I would tell her I had to run but would get back to her soon. I had a mole in her office who would tell me the minute Susie left her desk, and I would call and leave a voice mail saying I was sorry I missed her. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked in my little world.
Susie once harassed an associate so much about his receipt timeline (she was like a detective) that he started taking pictures of himself in front of the hotel or a major city landmark, holding up a paper with that day’s date, and attached them to his receipts. This is 110% true; I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Anyway, when I read about this fraudulent receipt situation, I thought about Susie and it made me smile. Not under her watch my friend…not under her watch.