Group Probing Pentagon Credit Card Abuse

When it comes to irresponsible credit card use, the Pentagon has become the governmental equivalent of a giddy college freshman with his first Visa card and a hankering for electronic goods.

But all that will come to an end now that the Defense Department has formed a new task force to investigate government credit card abuse by defense employees, officials said Wednesday.

"We are not going to let the grass grow under our feet on this one," said Dov S. Zakheim, the Pentagon's comptroller and chief financial officer.

In the next 60 days, the task force will develop a plan to reform how credit cards are used. Among the legislative changes being considered, Zakheim said, is making credit card abuse a specific violation under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The task force is the fruit of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's mission to stop the kind of credit card abuses first uncovered last summer.

Congressional investigators found that more than 46,000 Defense Department employees had defaulted on $62 million in official travel expenses charged on government cards as of last November. The bad debts, most of which have been written off by the banks that issue the cards, have been increasing at the rate of $1 million a month.

Zakheim said there is much less abuse of purchase cards, which are used to buy goods and services up to $2,500. The government is billed directly for all transactions on those cards, a total of $6.1 billion last year. About 7.5 percent of the Pentagon's purchase card transactions are delinquent, or more than 60 days overdue, he said.

In the past year, more than 200,000 Pentagon credit cards have been canceled or deactivated as officials have tightened controls, Zakheim said. They are conducting 17 criminal investigations involving 90 people.

The task force will include representatives of the Pentagon's inspector general, the Justice Department, the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management.

"Anybody with any kind of stake is involved," Zakheim said. "This is too important to leave anybody out."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.