Jessica had 2 weeks to plan how she would explain her manager's misconduct to the board. Being on leave had given her ample time to run through eight years of memories over and over and recollect every detail.
Her humble compact car whined as she turned it into Tristate Graphics’ entrance and headed up the driveway toward the executive offices, resisting the instinct to pull into the production plant parking lot.
“Build Me Up Buttercup”, a motown classic, was playing at full volume in the car. Bobbing her head and singing along to the music helped settle her nerves. She had a final moment of rest, doubled checked that she had taken her anti-seizure pill today, got out of the car, stood a bit taller and walked proudly toward the executive building.
She hadn’t heard much from her coworkers in the last two weeks but Matthew had checked in with her daily. He reassured her she would get a full hearing to explain her case to senior management.
“Welcome to Tristate Graphics. Hope you are having a glorious morning!” announced the alert woman at the reception desk.
The word now sounded irritating. She remembered saying things were glorious in her first 5 years too. At Tristate Graphics they had their own way of saying a lot of things.
“Here to see Matthew Schiller,” Jessica said to the receptionist.
Matthew was the only one who had listened. She had brought up her suspicions about her manager’s kickback scheme to Accounting and HR but they just became jittery and found excuses to shoo her away. She couldn’t understand it. Maybe they thought she was just making it up? Or did they just not want to get involved against a popular manager in the company?
Jessica decided she needed to go to a higher level. She reached out to the legal department and found Matthew. He called her to his office the same afternoon for a private meeting and patiently went through every detail of her findings. It was a relief to have someone confirm what her suspicions were and what Mike had done was a crime.
Looking back, she felt ashamed she hadn’t noticed it for 8 years. In the beginning she didn’t know Tristate processes at all, but as she handled their department's billing and expenses, over time Mike steadily gave her more and more responsibility. He spent more time out of the office, sure, but having everyone know she was the one getting things done was far more important to her. Coming from a Polish immigrant family she took pride in having the top publishing companies in America call her directly about their orders. Jessica’s department specialized in publishing glossy magazines and covered the whole East coast for most of the major periodicals in America.
Her love of music was their only conflict. She liked playing music out loud while she was working on invoices. He depended on her skill with figures and didn't complain except when on Friday morning when he might have been having a hangover or when he was fighting with his wife. At other times he was fun and gregarious and went around the production plant floor and made jokes with everyone male and female.
To other departments she would explain that 99% of publishing cost was the ink and the paper the magazines were printed on. Every publisher had different preferences, and she knew them all. Mike sometimes brought her along to board meetings to help Mike explain all the details.
Mike had also been incredibly understanding when she began having the seizures five years ago. She first noticed something was wrong when she began having moments when she found herself watching other people talking, but then oddly found herself unable to say anything back. These episodes became more frequent and lasted longer until she couldn't hide them any longer. She went in for medical tests, and having been diagnosed with a rare type of epilepsy, worked half days for months, and often didn't come to work at all, because of the dizziness and headaches, until she gradually become adjusted to the anti-epileptic medication.
At some point, she wasn't sure when, she noticed Mike would only close the door to his office when the salesman from Miller Chem Supply visited. She asked to join in a few times but he was insistent each time that they had some man-to-man personal issues to discuss, but she could join another time. Miller sold the cleaning chemicals and solvents used by the night shift. No one in the board meetings ever asked about these expenses.
Out of curiosity, she checked the product names on the invoices from Miller Chem. She couldn’t find the products on their website. She looked up the names on the metal cans on solvents and found them on other vendors' websites. The prices were 25% of what Tristate was paying. Probably Miller was supplying a better product.
Her curiosity kept itching. She noticed the company name on the invoice, Miller Chemical Logistics, was different from all the company names listed on their website. She did a search for the name in the business registration database and found an address to an apartment number in Brooklyn. That was odd. A few more searches, and looking through Mike’s relatives on facebook led to the knowledge that the apartment was rented by Mike’s brother-in-law. Mike’s relative was running a chemical business out of a Brooklyn apartment with a name of a nationwide supplier? No, she thought, he must be paying his own relative or himself.
She went through the records and found 12 years of payments to the sham front company, then added up the total amount of money sent out.
Having grown up in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn with her immigrant mother and spending years working at near minimum wage jobs since she was a teen, it was a staggering amount.
For Jessica, obtaining her AIPB bookkeeping certificate was more a way to ensure a steady job with benefits, than any path to wealth. Somehow Mike had sidestepped all of this and paid himself more than anyone else in the company.
At corporate reception, Matthew stepped out. He was smiling warmly.
“Hello Jessica. Nice to see you this morning. You look great, it’s been so long since we talked in person.”. He gave her a warm smile. “Don’t worry. I think things are going to go well for you today.”
“Thanks Matthew!”, she patted his shoulder. She felt confident for the first time in weeks.
She followed Matthew down the hall and stepped into a conference room. She saw Mike at the end of a table looking far more somber than usual, and another older man she didn’t recognize.
She would keep them on the main issue of overcharging and fraud, and not let Mike sidetrack her into irrelevant details. All the answers were on hand for anything that he could throw back toward her; the termination of her assistant, the contact problems with Ostrich Books, her time off.. nothing she had done was against the Tristate employee handbook.
“You know Mike, of course, and this is Mr WIlliams, our head of human resources.” Matthew said. “We had a long discussion with Mike about these issues. Everyone understands the severity of the issues you’ve brought up. I think we can all say we would like to put this behind us.”
”I’m sorry to cause any trouble to the company. As a licensed AIPB bookkeeper this was part of my job.” Jessica said, thinking it best to stay professional.
“I would just like to remind you the issues you brought up are those of the company,” Matthew said, “You haven’t been personally affected by these, but everyone in this room appreciates your efforts at handling things in the interest of the company. In your next employee review we will report this great action you’ve taken for Tristate Graphics today.“
Matthew paused, and then continued.
“Now if you can sign this simple statement documenting what we discussed today we can put all this behind us.”
Matthew handed over 2 sheets of A4 paper stapled together folded over to the last page, gave her a pen and gestured toward the bottom.
Jessica put pen to paper. She thought for a second.
“I never sign anything I didn’t read,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just acknowledging what we just discussed,” Matthew said, his insistent tone catching her attention.
She turned back to the first page and began to read word by word.
“I, Jessica Bartosz, the “Employee”, in the matter of financial transactions between Tristate Graphics, the “Employer”, and Miller Chemicals, the “Vendor”, have communicated all I am aware of..… and agree to not disclose particulars of any transactions regarding this entity to any outside party at a penalty of loss of 1 year of the employee’s annual compensation. Signed ___ Jessica Bartosz”
Her anger grew line by line when she did not see any mention of Mike. This letter was all about her.
“I can’t sign this. Why am I being penalized? What about him?” She pointed toward Mike without looking at him.
“We thought you might have some hesitations. The company is willing to offer you an immediate 10% salary increase.”
“But he stole 2 million dollars!”
“You’re a good person Jessica, we can see that. Isn’t it better for everyone if we move past this?”
Jessica saw a hint of a smirk on Mike’s face. She wanted to shout but she was alone with three men each twice her size. She stood up and walked toward the door. That seemed to catch them by surprise. She managed to get out the front door of the building before Matthew had a chance to catch her to try to sweet talk her into signing.
She turned the key and squealed out of the parking lot. Adjusting her rear view mirror she saw all the boxes of office clothes piled in the back seat of her Honda Civic.
Later that day, Jessica felt relief, resignation, and then overwhelming joy after handing them to the donation center. She wouldn’t need them anymore. It had been against the rules at Tristate to write or publish her own work but under a pseudonym she had had three articles published, and an editor at the Pacific Magazine had just put her in touch with an agent. She had outgrown being an assistant to Mike and Tristate Graphics forever.