GAO: Purchase cards are being misused

Many purchases made that use government purchase cards bypass the rules that agencies have established to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday shows. In addition, GAO identified a number of cases of misuse of the cards.

GAO asked agencies to provide documentation showing the purchases had been properly authorized by agency officials, and that when the goods or services were delivered, someone other than the cardholder received and signed for them. Those are two key safeguards, intended to make it difficult for individuals to secretly order personal items using the cards. However, agencies were unable to prove the safeguards had been adhered to in almost half the transactions GAO examined.

Specifically, agencies could not show they followed the rules in 48 percent of purchases of more than $2,500 and 41 percent of smaller transactions.

The study also uncovered some cases of abuse, such as:
  • An Agriculture Department employee used convenience checks connected to a purchase card account to buy $642,000 in personal goods and services over a six-year period.
  • Four Defense Department cardholders bought expensive suits and accessories from high-end clothing stores for service members, for a total of more than $77,000.
  • An Interior Department employee used a card to get more than $24,000 in cash advances from automated teller machines over a year.

The GAO survey was based on a sampling of transactions. GAO issued 13 recommendations in the report, among them:
  • The director of the Office of Management and Budget should issue a memorandum reminding agencies that internal controls over use of the cards also apply to convenience checks.
  • Issue a memo to agency heads requesting that cardholders, the officials who approve purchase cards transactions, or both, reimburse the government for unauthorized or erroneous purchases.
  • The General Services Administration should provide agencies with guidance on how cardholders should document the receipt and acceptance of items bought with purchase cards.
  • Remind agencies that items such as computers, digital cameras, printers, mp3 players and similar devices are "pilferable," meaning they can easily be converted for personal use.

A bill currently in the Senate, the Government Credit Card Abuse Prevention Act of 2007, would take some of OMB's internal controls and administrative penalties for card abuse and turn them into law, according to OMB officials who spoke today about the report.

Michael Hardy writes for Federal Computer Week, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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