Put it on expenses

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist has seen some wild expenses claims over the years

Struggling with the business plan she was trying to write, she asked a question: “What estimate should I put in the space which says ‘expenses’?”

“Picture Elton John on a shopping spree and put in a large random number,” I replied. “Such as your phone number.”

“Surely there must be some sort of formula?” she asked.

“The official formula is ‘Think of a number and double it,’” I said.

Expenses claims are crazy. In the United Kingdom, one parliamentarian claimed expenses for little houses for his ducks, and another for a moat around his home.

Even undramatic claims can escalate. One London accountant made 328 expenses claims for taxi journeys in seven weeks. Since he was quite high up in a big accounting firm, he was allowed to approve his own expenses –and eventually had more than a thousand claims for journeys totalling upwards of £90,000 (then more than HK$900,000) before he was arrested.

And there have been people whose claims were rejected and who went to court. The most ridiculous example in my files came from (of course) the United States. A nightclub performer listed her breast implant surgery as a “work related expense” but it was rejected by tax officials on the grounds that her bust was already size 56FF – difficult to describe as undersized.

An appeal court judge, presented with details of the average upper body dimensions of her competitors, ruled that a larger chest was actually “a required condition of employment,” and granted the plea.

Still, I prefer real, sometimes unpredictable expenses claims to the fake, over-organized ones that I discovered on my first day of work at a newspaper office many years ago.

Journalist union leaders told me they had calculated the maximum plausible amount a reporter might spend, and all staff had to file identical claims every week for this exact amount.

They said only one person refused to join the scheme: a religious person who insisted on writing the actual, truthful amount on his expenses form every week.

He became my hero, although he was a bit extreme. He would file an expenses claim accompanied by a receipt for “two cups of tea” but then would deduct the cost of one cup, because he had drunk it himself.

Then came the era when everyone tried to insist on itemized bills.

But they can be trouble too. I remember one case in which a Hong Kong business traveller’s claim from Bangkok raised eyebrows because the bill listed: “Two beers and a virgin.” He later explained that the client had ordered a drink called virgin piña colada. (Well, I believed him.)

In Hong Kong these days, we do so much on our phones that there is no chance that people will go through an itemized phone bill to check the details of every connection made.

But just a few years ago, itemized phone bills listing every call made were common in Hong Kong and elsewhere. I remember writing up an incident in Canada in which a woman sued her phone company for sending her a bill listing every call. Her husband spotted a number he had never seen before and called it – to discover his wife’s secret lover. The husband packed his bags and left, and the wife sued the phone company, which seemed a bit unreasonable to me.

Anyway, in big companies these days, you no longer have to keep receipts – they give you a corporate credit card and you charge everything to that.

The time is already here when the long lists of items charged as expenses are sometimes inspected by computer programmes rather than read by humans.

I hope someone remembered to train robots that “two beers and a virgin” are an entirely reasonable part of a business lunch.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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