WASHINGTON – Interior Department employees used government-issued credit cards to pay their rent, withdraw money at casinos and buy jewelry and furniture, an audit found.
Almost three-quarters of the department's 79,000 workers have government credit cards, and the agency's inspector general found myriad problems with use and oversight. Some 1,116 former Interior employees still had active charge card accounts, but the report found no evidence of activity on them.
"The department and its bureaus do not have sufficient controls in place to minimize abuse of the charge card," the report said. Some reviews of purchases "were done inadequately or in a perfunctory matter, some were not done on a regular basis, and some were not done at all."
Interior spokesman John Wright said Tuesday the department is working to solve the problems identified in the audit, which was completed in late December. Training has begun to help managers spot abuse, and those who fail to recognize it could face disciplinary action.
"We take these credit card issues very seriously and are working aggressively to improve our guidelines to address this matter," Wright said.
The audit was completed a year after the Clinton administration gave the Interior Department a "Hammer Award" for good management of its credit card system. The award was part of then-Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" savings campaign.
Governmentwide, 398,000 employees have permission to make business purchases on credit cards. Those transactions totaled $13.7 billion last year, according to the General Services Administration. GSA manages the government's credit card program, although direct oversight is up to individual departments.
Another $4.7 billion was spent by 2.1 million federal employees with government-issued credit cards that can be used only for travel expenses, said Sue McIver, the GSA's director of services acquisition.
McIver said the government has become better at identifying credit card abuse.
"I believe that any system out there has weaknesses to it," McIver said. "But because so much of this is electronic now, we are able to identify [misuse] quickly and take appropriate action."
Interior Department employees with government-issued cards made more than 2 million purchases for $675 million in fiscal years 1999 and 2000. In most cases, employees have credit lines of $2,500 for purchases.
The inspector general looked at cardholders at specific locations within the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs. It also analyzed control measures and policies designed to prevent abuse.
Auditors found cases where employees used cards to pay telephone bills and rent, to have their cars repaired and to buy household furnishings and jewelry. They also found instances where charge cards were used to get wire transfer cash advances — in some cases thousands of dollars — from casinos.
The investigation did not identify individual employees, nor did it say whether the employees repaid the government or were disciplined.
In response, the agency plans departmentwide training for cardholders, starting this month. The aim is to make sure they know what purchases are proper.
The agency now prohibits employees from receiving cash advances through wire transfers on their credit cards. It is reviewing whether fewer employees should have cards and if their credit lines should be lowered. That analysis is expected to be completed in August.
Congressional investigators found this year that more than 46,000 Defense Department employees had defaulted on $62 million in travel expenses through last November. The employees had charged the travel and were to have paid the bills after the department reimbursed them but did not.
A Pentagon task force is studying how to tighten control over its 1.6 million card users.