~ By Bertha Henson ~
Another day of bad memories. I am referring to the case of the ex-SPH executive Peter Khoo, who was charged in court for filching money and receiving kickbacks from a supplier. I have been waiting for this day for close on two years now, ever since my ex-Editor called me into his room to tell me the news that Pete had confessed to what he did. He asked me to take on Pete’s job and clean house. I felt as though my head was about to burst; the blood was pounding in my skull so hard…I would never have thought Pete needed the money…
The day went by in a blur. Meetings with management to cobble out a press statement, a trip to the National Council of Social Service – then administrator of the School Pocket Money Fund (SPMF) to alert them to what’s happening, editorial meetings to decide how to ”play” the story. The ST editors decided that the story would be dealt with like any other story – even though/or especially since it involved one of our own. Stake-outs started. People who might have an inkling of what went on were pounced upon by their own colleagues.
But the impact fell hardest on the staff closest to Pete. Through the day, I had been busy contacting each one, telling those who were out of the office organising outside events to return, getting people on their rest day out of home to the office and telling one who was away on holiday to take the next plane home. Like now. Now.
When all went finally brought before the Editor to be told the news, they were shell-shocked. I thought to myself, “Oh my God, I am going to have a very hard time pulling them together to clean house,” I was wrong.
After a day of daze, they picked themselves up with a vengeance and we went about sorting through all the standard operating procedures and introducing new ones. I tied so much stuff in red tape that we were strangling ourselves with it.
The main thing was to ensure that DONATIONS would not have a way of slipping into somebody else’s pockets. Thinking back, some of the things we did were really over-the-top. Not enough to have one safe but two. Not enough to have one signature but two/three. There was the problem with cash donations. Cheques were pretty straightforward since they were in the name of the Fund, but all those coins and notes?
Dealing with small change became a big chore. Bags and tags and counting once, twice, timings to get to the bank. It became so that I was tempted to say no cash please. It was just a small percentage of total donations but enough to be a big headache. Several times, staff came to me to ask that we convert the cash into a cheque. My chequebook would come out, and I would have several stacks of $2 bills that couldn’t fit into my handbag.
Of course, we didn’t clean house alone. Internal and external auditors were killing entire forests with reports on what was the case, now the case and would be the case. Those vouchers – and we had plenty – were a pain. New records were started, everything serialised, and procedures put in place for the drawing of any voucher. Essentially, staff had to record my permission for every single voucher drawn.
What was worse was that Pete had admitted taking Capita vouchers too. So there I was at one dinner with the Capitaland folks, a cheque in hand, to make restitution. I don’t when I have ever felt so shame-faced. But the Capitaland folks were gracious and more than willing to work with us again…I mean, they could have really made me feel worse.
I am not talking about the ins-and-outs of the kickbacks etc, since a court case is coming up. I know SPH has declined comment, but an assurance that things are in order is, well, in order. So dare I say this: We cut off all links with Sino-British, the suppliers, as soon as we possibly could. The SPMF was ring-fenced even further. It is now a full-fledged charity, rather than the half-being it was. It is now properly staffed, with its own board and governance rules. There’s so much red tape on collection and distribution of money we could use them as Christmas decorations. At least, that was the way I left it.
Some people thought that we made too big a deal out of a small amount of money. I mean, $190K or so is nothing like City Harvest’s $23m…I don’t think so. When a publishing company gets into trouble, it has to come clean, be whiter than white.
After all, the media is the outfit that gets on its high horse whenever others commit breaches of trust. What more when it’s one of its own? Some self-flagellation is in order to restore the public trust. That’s part of maintaining editorial integrity as well.
Go buy ST.
This article first appeared on her blog. Bertha Henson is a former Associate Editor of The Straits Times.