WASHINGTON – A bill that will require federal agencies to put new controls on government charge cards and enforce more stringent penalties for violations by federal employees is on its way to the President for his signature, following final passage by Congress over the weekend.
The reform measure was sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and it first won Senate approval in July 2011. The House of Representatives passed it during the summer. The Senate needed to act again for final passage, which it did very early Saturday morning.
“This bill is about accountability,” said Grassley. “The public trust has been violated by abusive use of government charge cards. By putting some common-sense controls into the law, we can make certain the federal bureaucracy improves the way it responsibly manages the use of these cards.”
“Government charge cards create numerous efficiencies by allowing federal employees to make small, official purchases without a mound of paperwork. But over the years, the Government Accountability Office and the Inspectors General have identified many examples of fraudulent or illegal use of these charge cards. Even at the General Services Administration, which administers the charge card program for the entire federal government, a high-ranking employee was able to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenditures on a government charge card. This legislation would impose stricter controls on charge cards to help reduce waste, fraud, and abuse. It’s a common-sense way to keep the government accountable for taxpayer dollars,” said Lieberman.
“This bill would require agencies to ensure that purchase and travel cards are used only for approved spending and to take action for misuse of cards. While purchase and travel cards have been important tools in meeting the government’s procurement needs in a timely and cost-efficient manner, their use often has been subject to some malfeasance and inappropriate purchases by individual card holders. American taxpayers get the bill for these federal credit cards and they deserve complete assurance that their money is going to legitimate business purposes,” said Collins.
The senators’ effort to codify new controls and penalties responds to outrageous accounts of purchases made with government charge cards, as well as independent analysis which found inadequate and inconsistent controls within government agencies. At issue are purchase cards, which are used by authorized federal employees for small-scale items needed for official business, such as office supplies, as well as travel cards, which are issued to federal employees to pay for official travel expenses. When purchase cards are misused, taxpayer money is wasted. When travel cards are misused and the bills aren’t paid, the government risks losing millions of dollars in rebates.
Grassley has put the spotlight on problematic use of these cards for many years, first at the Department of Defense and then also at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, and elsewhere.
Over the years, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has documented fraudulent, questionable and overly expensive purchases made by federal workers with government purchase and travel cards, including kitchen appliances, jewelry, gambling, cruises, and even the tab at gentlemen’s clubs and legalized brothels.
Below is a summary of the reform legislation. The Senate also had passed the reform measure in 2009, but it was never taken up by the House of Representatives.
Summary of the Government Charge Card Abuse Prevention Act
The bill would require all federal agencies to establish certain safeguards and internal controls for government charge card programs, and to establish penalties for violations, including dismissal when circumstances warrant. The bill would also increase oversight by providing that each agency Inspector General periodically conduct risk assessments and audits to identify fraud and improper use of government charge cards. These reforms are based on the experience of Grassley and other members of Congress, the GAO, and agency Inspectors General in investigating the weaknesses in agency policies and procedures that have lead to instances of waste, fraud, and abuse in government charge card programs.
The required safeguards and internal controls include:
• performing credit checks for travel card holders and issuing restricted cards for those with poor or no credit to reduce the potential for misuse
• maintaining a record of each cardholder, including single transaction limits and total transaction limits so agencies can effectively manage their cardholders
• implementing periodic reviews to determine if cardholders have a need for a card
• properly recording rebates to the government based on prompt payment, sales volume, etc.
• providing training for cardholders and managers
• utilizing effective systems, techniques, and technologies to prevent or catch fraudulent purchases
• establishing specific policies about the number of cards to be issued, the credit limits for certain categories of cardholders, and categories of employees eligible to be issued cards
• invalidating cards when employees leave the agency or transfer
• establishing an approving official other than the purchase card holder so employees cannot approve their own purchases
• reconciling purchase card charges on the bill with receipts and supporting documentation
• reconciling disputed purchase card charges and discrepancies with the bank according to the proper procedure
• making purchase card payments promptly to avoid interest penalties
• retaining records of purchase card transactions in accordance with standard government record keeping polices
• utilizing direct payments to the bank when reimbursing employees for travel card purchases to ensure that travel card bills get paid
• comparing items submitted on travel vouchers with items already paid for with centrally billed accounts to avoid reimbursing employees for items already paid for by the agency
• submitting refund requests for unused airline tickets so the taxpayers don’t pay for tickets that were not used
• disputing unauthorized charges and tracking the status of disputed charges to proper resolution