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Commentary: Citibank analyst's two-sandwich meal – why expenses are a fraught form of fraud

LONDON: For the best part of a day last week, the best-read story in the Financial Times was not about the unfolding war between Israel and Hamas, or the ongoing battles in Ukraine, or Elon Musk or Donald Trump.

It concerned a man named Szabolcs Fekete, who was a senior analyst at Citibank until he claimed two coffees and two sandwiches on expenses after taking his partner on a business trip to Amsterdam last year.

The bank decided to investigate whether Fekete, who worked on legal compliance policies, had really eaten all this inauspicious grub, and some suspicious-looking pasta, by himself.

He initially said he had, then admitted his partner had had some. The bank sacked him for gross misconduct. He sued for unfair and wrongful dismissal.

An employment judge sided with Citi, ruling that Fekete should have immediately confessed and the bank was entitled to expect its staff to be honest.

So far, so simple. Except the response to this story has been anything but straightforward.

Most striking of all is the level of derision directed not at Fekete but at Citi.

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“YOU CAN’T LIE IN A BANK”

At the time of writing, more than 500 people had digitally applauded one FT reader who wrote in response to the story: “You can’t lie in a bank, unless it’s a really big lie.” 

I laughed aloud myself when I came across a part of the ruling where the judge wrote that the circumstances of the case included the fact that Citi “operates in a highly regulated financial sector and requires its employees to act with utmost integrity at all times”.

This would be the same bank whose misconduct costs totalled more than £13 billion (US$15.8 billion) between 2014 and 2018 alone, according to data that academics at London’s Bayes Business School compiled for a conduct costs project.

Some of the largest costs related to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, but big sums arose in more recent years, including US$402 million in 2018 to settle the bank’s role in a conspiracy to manipulate foreign exchange markets.

Citi was among 20 large banks that collectively paid more than £377 billion in such costs between 2008 and 2018, as a result of mis-selling, money laundering, market abuse and other misdemeanours, the researchers found. 

These costs did not necessarily relate to a single individual. And no one wants a bank to employ anyone it thinks is dishonest. But the scale of these sums makes one wonder about dismissing someone for sandwiches and coffee.

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THE EXPENSES DON’T LIE

Fairly or not, Fekete’s case reminds me of a piece of advice an executive gave me years ago that I have never forgotten. If a company wants to fire someone, the easiest way to do it is to go through their expenses.

That’s because of something else that has made the Citi sandwich case so compelling: We probably all know someone who has been tempted to cheat on their expenses.

It is not entirely clear how rife expenses fraud is. Research on the topic tends to be done by companies that sell expenses software and so are hardly disinterested observers.

Still, having been doomed to an expenses system so abject it makes grown men and women howl, I am inclined to believe one 2018 survey that claimed employees forced to wrestle with unnecessarily fiddly and burdensome systems were more than twice as likely to cheat as those who used simpler ones.

However bad such fraud may be today though, I am sure it used to be worse, at least in journalism.

In my office, the Citi story unleashed a stream of memories about the stunningly creative expense claims that famed journalists once made. Allegedly.

Did I know about the man who shipped his grand piano back to Europe from Africa? Or the chap who kept claiming for boarding school fees long after his children left school?

I did not, possibly because the stories were apocryphal, though I have heard plenty like them. I also remember the days when generous expense claims were not only normal but actively encouraged.

The pressed finances of today’s news outlets mean the age of Fleet Street legends driving accountants to mental breakdowns with wild expense claims has faded. But I still treasure the memory of one of my first newsroom bosses who snapped: “Why haven’t you claimed for any lunches yet? Do you like paying to work here?”

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