Szabolcs Fekete, a former employee of Citibank, was dismissed ostensibly for falsifying his expenses and trying to justify what he did. Routine, one might think, were thousands of pounds to be involved - one has only to remind oneself of the UK MP's expenses scandal of 2009 and the legendary claim for a duck house in his pond at the home of MP Sir Peter Viggers as part of a £30,000 claim for maintaining his garden. He was not alone in making such claims and it showed some chutzpah on the part of a lot of MP’s who submitted whopping expenses claims to the Parliamentary authorities for items which were nothing to do with their job as a member of parliament. Shame and humiliation was heaped upon them when it all hit the press. Sir Peter resigned.
In contrast to Sir Peter Mr Fekete was a rank amateur in the arena of fiddling your expenses as, in his case the sums involved were negligible and within the daily allowance of $100 permitted to all Citibank employees travelling on work related business.
What happened was that Mr Fekete’s expenses had been queried by his eagle eyed manager who spotted that the receipts attached to Mr Fekete’s claim for a trip to Amsterdam were for two of everything, two coffees, two sandwiches and two dinners. Was Citibank being asked to pay for two people’s meals and drinks and not just Mr Fekete’s?
Mr Fekete put forward an ingenious explanation that he’d missed breakfast so bought two sandwiches and was allowed to drink more than one coffee. Where Mr Fekete stumbled was in explaining why he claimed for two dinners. Did he, in fact, share his meals with his partner?
No said Mr Fekete and anyway the total cost was still within the $100 a day allowance so what? He couldn’t see a problem.
The matter was escalated to the Citibank security and investigations service who finally got the story that, in fact Mr Fekete had taken his partner with him and, indeed, half the expense was for them. He also said that he was having personal difficulties following the death of his grandmother, had taken six weeks of medical leave and was on strong medication when he replied to emails.
Citibank then fired Mr Fekete who took them to the tribunal – and lost.
Why did he lose? He lost not because he’d claimed for his partner - Citibank could afford it – but because he lied about it when questioned. The tribunal pointed out that Mr Fekete was in a position of trust in a global financial institution. Had he owned up when first challenged and amended his claim nothing would have happened but instead he tried to lie his way out of the situation. Citibank were right to dismiss him as he had committed a breach of trust.
This may look superficially like a rather trivial case and one to laugh about in the tea break but, in fact, it has some significance and some relevance to the ethical situation of accountants.
The key ethical principles of Integrity and Professional Behaviour matter. If accountants are to be trusted they must behave in a professional manner at all times and to observe the ethical principles underlying the reputation of the profession.
Although the amount of money in the case of Mr Fekete was minimal the tribunal judge’s comments hinted at an important point – if Mr Fekete was prepared to lie in order not to have to repay Citibank a relatively small amount of money – what else was he prepared to do? Could he be trusted with the big things if he couldn’t be trusted with the small things?
Personal integrity is a vital component in maintaining an accountant’s independence and reputation. The accountant must hold true to their principles and not do anything to bring the profession into disrepute. Fiddling your expenses, lying about it and having your tribunal failure plastered all over the financial press branding you as a liar and a cheat probably qualifies as bringing the profession into disrepute.
The lack of personal integrity so prominently displayed by Mr Fekete has probably hit his future job prospects so this whole affair has probably done him immense personal damage. There is a real outcome to this case and a real effect on people’s lives.
Ethics is important, as this case shows, and to professional, qualified and trainee accountants it is a cornerstone of the profession. There are some situations where the ethical position is not clear or obscured but this is not one of them. Telling lies and making false claims is not ethical and Mr Fekete paid the price for that.
So it’s not about the money it’s about the principles - accountants forget that at their peril.
John Taylor is an author for accountingcpd. To see his courses, click here.