- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

It sounded like a good idea: Give certain D.C. employees credit cards, so they won’t burden the contracting and procurement process with small purchases like office supplies. Bad idea. D.C. workers clearly violated the intent of the program, spending public dollars on cakes and computers, as well as personal shopping. There were even purchases on eBay by bureaucrats who obviously have far too much time on their hands and find it way too easy to spend other people’s money. City officials offered The Washington Times and The Washington Post explanations for the improper and unauthorized purchases, including our favorite — lack of training. About the only good news that has come from the recent news stories is that authorities promised to hold employees accountable. Then again, they’ve said that before, too.

The D.C. government Visa program is fairly simple. Employees sometimes need to purchase incidentals, like office and school supplies, and books and sports equipment. The limit on a single purchase is $2,500. The city issued 740 cards. The arrangement called for agencies to earn rebates by paying its bills on time, which would have meant savings for D.C. taxpayers would be twofold — since there also was less red tape involved. Instead, the program is costing money because, as The Post reported, agencies ran up nearly $171,000 in interest charges on late payments and, as The Times reported, often skirted the spending limit by making several purchases under $2,500 a piece.

The most egregious offender appears to be D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), which issued 275 credit cards. DCPS cannot account for an estimated $1.6 million in charges for fiscal 2001. School employees repeatedly made improper and unauthorized purchases, provided insufficient invoices and other documentation of purchases, and failed to “maintain an inventory or purchase cardholders,” among other things, according to a recent report by D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols. Also, school workers paid taxes on tax-exempt items, bought “items prone to mysterious disappearance,” (including computers and DVD players) and employees themselves “may have aided in concealing the misuse of funds.”

It is precisely at this juncture that we revisit training. Did training, or the lack thereof, allow the former deputy director of the D.C. Office of Property Management to run up $440,000 in charges on his city credit card, including goods bought at the Gap and Bally shoes, as The Post reported? Did the lack of training mean that DCPS workers didn’t know they weren’t suppose to use D.C. government credit cards to buy Chinese takeout in Laurel, Md., to shop on eBay or to make calls to a psychic telephone service?

Training is an excuse — and a sorry excuse at that.

Fortunately, for taxpayers, the investigations continue. Important as well, however, is what happens afterward. The auditor recommends appropriate steps to recover improper and unauthorized payments, and holding guilty parties accountable “to the fullest extent permitted under the District’s personnel law and rules.” We concur. Anything short of that will be aiding and abetting the offenders in waste, fraud and abuse.

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