(FORTUNE Magazine) – SEVERAL YEARS AGO I attended a convention in Pasadena, which is a very nice place, by the way. Good weather. Nice houses. The Ritz hotel we were imprisoned in was lovely as well, although the guest cottages could have used some new carpets. One night a bunch of us got together over drinks, and the topic moved gingerly to one that is central to all business careers: what may or may not be expensed. Naturally, after a drink or two, the legendary achievers were honored.
And thus it was that we heard about Lattimore, which is not his real name, who came to this convention one year, back in the days before goodness and light prevailed, and brought the curtains from his house! Big, pleated things they were, weighing perhaps 100 pounds. He brought them in his big American Touristers and put them through the hotel system as his own personal laundry, which was charged to his room, which was comped by the organization that runs the event.
Ah, Lattimore! Expensing the dry cleaning of his household curtains! Even back then, when news spread of his daring, he was reviled and wondered at, like all great monsters who go where mere mortals fear to tread. And of course he was fired. And well he should have been! Bad Lattimore!
Yes, as the cost of our war in Iraq mounts into the projected trillions, and the profits of Exxon Mobil accrete to $10 billion per quarter on the backs of folks who can no longer afford to drive to work, how we all still shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the miscreants who give expense-report filers a bad name. How disgusting is their cupidity and mendacity! How they have ruined things for the rest of us! Today, if one eats a macadamia nut from a minibar one expects Eliot Spitzer to pop out of the closet with a pair of shiny handcuffs! And that, of course, is as it should be. Unless every single shareholder can have a nut, why should we who labor in their name?
And yet, where are the freebooters of yesteryear? Can we take a moment to look back at them in pleasant anger and disgust?
Where, for instance, is the daring moron I will call Schroeder, who was moved by his company to a fine management post in Chicago, bought a starter mansion, set up shop ... and proceeded to use the firm's trade relationships with various area establishments to furnish his entire house? Couches! Lamps! Bedding! All of it free! (To him.) When it was discovered, the head of Human Resources went out that same day and threw him from the 35th-floor window of the office tower.
Where is Grosz, who tried to expense the deck of his house because he took business calls there on weekends?
Or Bassinger, who put through his luggage, because he was required to use it on business trips?
Alas, guys like Jack Welch and Dennis Kozlowski have befouled the entire field. Their greens fees, shower curtains, and company jets for private purposes have brought all of us low. Today our companies are willing to spend $100,000 per year for a bean counter whose job it is to make sure that you don't have $3.55 worth of bacon with your eggs when you're staying at the approved motel in Sheboygan. Good for all of us! Huzzah!
And yet, while it is unseemly for us to push against this rectitude, is there no such thing as a legitimate business expense that, on its surface, seems to strain the bounds of credulity?
Which is why, in the end, we must offer a tip of our toupees to Tepper, a legend at the corporation that publishes this very magazine. He's long gone now, Tepper, having retired in glory some years ago. But his name lives on.
Tepper was a road warrior. And at some point he was told, on a moment's notice, to drag his tired self from San Diego, where he was fighting some portion of the good fight in 78-degree weather, to Anchorage, where it was about 30 below. When he arrived at the airport in his civvies, he purchased a winter coat to protect his body from the elements imposed upon him in the course of business. When he got back to New York, he put through his expense report, including the coat. The response from Accounting was immediate. The company's policy disallowed personal garb. End of case.
Indignant, and convinced of the propriety of his position, Tepper redid his expenses, spreading the cost of the offending article throughout the meals, taxicabs, hotels, and telephone calls he was expensing. He then filed the report with the following buck slip on top: "Now find the friggin' coat." They didn't either.
That story may horrify you. Or give you pleasure. It probably depends on where you're coming from. Or how much it cost you to get there.
STANLEY BING's latest book, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the REAL Art of War (HarperBusiness), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at email@example.com.