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So many credit cards, so little oversight



Published: Sun, August 19, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



"What's in your wallet," a series of clever credit card commercials have been asking TV viewers over the past few months. Not, we hope, 3 million credit cards.

But that's exactly what's in the United States government's wallet, give or take a couple of hundred thousand cards.

Uncle Sam holds 3 million credit cards in his various arms, meaning that three out of four government employees have access to a card.

Is it any wonder that investigators are uncovering instances of abuse? And some of those abuses ought to have Uncle Sam hopping mad.

The cards are supposed to be used to pay for office supplies, travel, automobile maintenance and fuel. And to a certain extent, the proper use of cards makes sense. It reduces paper work, and the government even collects bonuses for its credit purchase -- $50 million worth one year.

But just one of the government's 4 million workers offset 1 percent of all those savings. An employee in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles managed to charge more than $500,000 worth of personal purchases on a government credit card over a period of three years.

Meanwhile some employees in the Department of Education used credit cards to pay for Internet pornography. No one in the department either noticed those purchases or took exception. Congressional investigators were the first to cry foul.

Change needed: Now that Congress and The Associated Press, which filed a Freedom of Information requess for credit card information, are taking a peek into Washington's wallet, perhaps some changes will be made.

The first order of business should be for each office manager to justify those cards that under his or her control. Get rid of the cards that aren't necessary, then make it perfectly clear that any employee who attempts to defraud the government through credit card abuse will not only face disciplinary action, but criminal charges.

As big as the government is, everybody still has to answer to someone Those bosses who don't do what's necessary all along the line to control credit card abuse by their subordinates should be held to account -- from an office manager in Peoria, to a regional controller in Chicago, to a cabinet secretary in Washington.

That's the only way to break the cycle.




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