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Feds run off track with Pentagon transit perk
Question of the Day
Federal officials failed to keep track of how they doled out millions of dollars in transit benefits paid for Washington-area Pentagon employees to get to and from work, resulting in overpayments, double dipping and questionable public transit fares, a recent Pentagon review has found.
The increasingly generous subsidy, expected to cost about $60 million this year, pays workers to take mass transit or join van pools to help unclog the notoriously traffic-snarled roadways in and around the nation’s capital.
With the passage of the economic stimulus package last year, area federal workers across government saw their maximum transit subsidy rise from $120 per month to $230 per month.
Hundreds of workers, for instance, appeared to be double dipping by collecting public transit subsidies for bus or train fares at the same time they received parking benefits. And records for more than 30,000 workers in the transit-subsidy program were incomplete or inaccurate, according to the review.
The inspector general’s office declined Monday to comment on the report, and e-mails and telephone calls to the Washington Headquarters Services, the Pentagon agency that oversees the transit program, were not returned by deadline.
The findings were contained in an April 16 Pentagon report in which the inspector general ultimately made no recommendations, saying the military already had taken actions to “adequately address the internal control weaknesses.”
The audit prompted numerous changes in how officials manage the transit-subsidy program, including the start last summer of a program to automatically cross-check Pentagon parking records against the rolls of employees receiving transit subsidies.
Still, Pete Sepp, vice president of policy for the National Taxpayers Union, said the transit-subsidy program will remain a tempting source of easy cash for unscrupulous employees.
“The new safeguards provide fewer opportunities to cheat, but thanks to the huge increase in subsidies from the stimulus bill, there’s now more motive to do so,” he said.
“It’s not easy to detect, for example, someone who gives all the proper information about where they enter and leave the transit system, only to secretly bum rides to work when loaning his or her pass to someone else.”
Washington Headquarters Services contracts out various responsibilities for management of the transit program to the Department of Transportation.
The report wasn’t the first time Pentagon officials were put on notice about problems with the transit program.
In 2007, another inspector general audit found more than 14,000 employees collecting transit subsidies who had filed incomplete applications. Inspectors also reported that more than 900 employees had collected public-transportation subsidies while receiving parking benefits.
Transit subsidies have come under scrutiny elsewhere in government.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office estimated that federal agencies had paid about $17 million in fraudulent transit payments. In some cases, employees were selling the nontransferable perks over the Internet.
In 2008, the State Department suspended one employee for a month after the employee was caught selling transit subsidies outside of a subway stop in Washington, according to an internal report on the case obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act.
The worker claimed ignorance, telling investigators that the fares were simply “government perks.”
In its report last month, the Pentagon inspector general’s office said it was referring 10 cases for criminal investigation.
The review also found “inaccurate or incomplete” records for all but 8,714 of the 41,279 workers who took part in the transit program. What’s more, about 5,000 employees overstated their benefits, resulting in more than a half-million dollars in overpayments.
Mr. Sepp said several of the reforms probably have weeded out “many if not most of the double dippers.” Still, he said, “ethically challenged” employees will be tempted to game the system.
“If federal officials truly believe that offering such generous benefits will ease congestion and clean the air, then the least they owe taxpayers, many of whom pay for transit out of their own pockets, is to prosecute fraud and abuse wherever and whenever it’s found,” he said.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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