Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

 Tokyo Lets the Cat Out of the Bag

Gordon requested that I draft a telegram (telex), for his signature, asking our embassy in Tokyo to confirm that they had under-reported gains on foreign currency transactions by at least one hundred thousand dollars. Tokyo had been chosen as a test to confirm the accuracy of my calculations because of its reputation for impeccable bookkeeping. Tokyo's initial response was not at all what Gordon and I expected.

Tokyo dispensed with any diplomatic niceties in its telegram telling Gordon what he could do with his calculations. Dave Gordon was a proud and ambitious man. Not only had I made him look like a fool but, if Tokyo was right, a potential windfall of more than seven million dollars had just evaporated, a tidy chunk of change even then. Further savings could be expected as lengthy, tedious calculations previously performed by support staff around the world were now done by a computer in Ottawa.

It was not only more than seven million dollars for the 1982 fiscal year that was gone but promises of even greater savings down the road. This was not a trivial thing for the man ultimately responsible for the preparation of the Estimates to Parliament. The head of the Estimates and Budgets Section, Hugh Burrill, reported to Gordon. It was for Burrill’s section that I built the Estimates Database.

Gordon was not a happy man when he showed up with Tokyo's response. I was working at one of the computer terminals in a restricted access room (then, access to all computers was tightly controlled; even personal computers were kept in this room) when he showed up. He only came close enough to where I was sitting so that when he flew Tokyo's telegram like a Frisbee in my direction, it landed on my desk. "Answer this," he said, and walked out.

I wasted no time in getting the powerful DEC20 to print out every financial transaction of the Tokyo embassy and the rates of exchange (both the budgeted and actual rates) used in the calculation of what they owed in currency gains. I pitied the next courier headed for the Far East. It had only taken Tokyo a few days to respond to my (Gordon's) first telegram. Going over the massive computer printout delivered by diplomatic courier took a bit more time, measured in weeks.

I was busy, as usual, at a computer terminal when the director showed up with Tokyo's second telegram. He did not look happy, but this time he did not throw it at me; this time, he handed it to me. The telegram contained an apology. Tokyo wrote that after a detailed review, my numbers were correct; so, why the gloomy disposition? This was a time for celebration or at least congratulations.

Looking back, I am convinced that Tokyo was aware all along that my calculations were correct. This would explain the embassy's over-the-top reaction to the first telegram. The tone of their initial response was probably their way of telling Gordon, in no uncertain terms, to back off. When they realized that proof existed in Ottawa as to what posts had been doing (for a number of years, it would later be ascertained), it was time to adopt a different strategy, a strategy that would have to involve Ottawa.

There was no thank you or apology from Gordon; just a request for a printout of the gains and losses for all posts by geographical area (Africa and Middle East, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and the United States). He wanted the printouts for his next meeting with the so-called Area Comptrollers scheduled for later that morning.

What is an Area Comptroller? Foreign Service Officers, as part of what is called re-Canadianization (getting re-acquainted with Canadian values after so much time spent in countries that don’t share them), are rotated back to Ottawa after two or more postings. Area Comptrollers were usually Foreign Service Officers in Ottawa on a re-Canadianization tour. Each was assigned a geographical region and given overall administrative responsibility for managing budgets and tracking expenditures for their respective region. In retrospect, there was really no point in producing the more than 300-page currency fluctuation printout. So why did Gordon sacrifice a few trees? Was he still unsure about what to do next?

The Currency Fluctuation Reporting System had not only identified additional savings of more than seven million dollars but also an apparent fraud on the taxpayer and Parliament that had been going on for years. The cat was out of the bag. Evidence of what had been going on was in the computer printouts that Tokyo acknowledged as accurate.

When I showed up at the director's office with the information he requested, Gordon asked if I wouldn't mind meeting with the Comptrollers. They were waiting for me in the division's small boardroom. This was highly unusual. I had never dealt with them directly. In fact, to the best of my recollection, I had never met any of them. Furthermore, a middle grade Financial Officer was, in effect, being asked to negotiate the return of more than seven million dollars, probably fraudulently obtained, with five experienced diplomats. I was, of course, not being asked to do any such thing.

With the massive computer printouts under my arm, I made my way to the boardroom where the Comptrollers were said to be waiting. They were all seated on one side of a medium-sized round table. They did not get up. I don't remember them introducing themselves. We definitely did not shake hands. What I remember is placing the printouts, which I had separated by geographical region, in front of them and having them gently pushed back. What I also remember is that they were not the least bit interested in talking about dollars and cents.

"We already know what your report contains," said the Comptroller directly across from me, the one who did all the talking. It soon became clear why I was the only one invited. It was not a meeting to discuss the return of ill-gotten gains. I had been invited to a lecture. The Comptrollers' unexpected tribute to the hardworking diplomats did not last more than five minutes. To the best of my recollection, here is the essence of what the guy in front of me had to say:

Foreign Service officers are doing an important job under difficult circumstances and deserve to be compensated for their hard work and dedication, something the government is not always willing to do. Under the circumstances, the Foreign Service was justified in keeping a portion of the gains made on foreign currency transactions.

At the end of this homage to the poor, unappreciated, hardworking Canadian Foreign Service officers, I was told to take my reports with me and get out. Until I met with the Area Comptrollers, I was convinced that under-reporting of currency gains was a simple mistake. Now I realized it wasn’t. I briefed my director about my meeting with the Area Comptrollers. Gordon told me to continue producing the Currency Fluctuation Report on a monthly basis and give them to him. He would look after them. I did so for more than two years. I respected the chain of command and trusted him to do what needed to be done.


The Comptrollers’ justification for diplomats and their support staff helping themselves to moneys to which they were not entitled implied that what they did was not really a crime. The money the Foreign Service helped itself to was only their due for the hard work done; work for which they were, in their opinion, not sufficiently compensated. The people pocketing that extra cash had secure jobs, above average salaries—way above average when you factored in the perks that come with being a member of the Foreign Service serving abroad—and after what they claimed was onerous work on behalf of ungrateful taxpayers was done, a generous pension, largely funded by those same ungrateful tightwads, awaited them.

In asking me to look at the theft from their point of view, they made an argument with which I was familiar. Hadn’t my parents done the same thing, though on a much smaller scale, when they sold garage and office equipment that was about to be seized to repay a debt to a finance company?

If you live in a black and white world, yes! I would eventually dismiss the Comptrollers’ arguments for what they were: self-serving, spurious arguments of convenience that did not differentiate between moral, ethical and legal choices that people living on the edge have to make every day. The ongoing theft was not motivated by necessity, but greed.