- - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

For families with teenagers, the monthly cell phone bill is often full of nasty surprises. The price of voice minutes, texts and data add up quickly. The cell phone companies turn a lot of profit, and they do it with the volume.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) pays no attention to its cell phone bill. A recent audit of the space agency’s books found that the bureaucrats who helped put man on the moon can’t keep track of its telephones.

The NASA inspector general reveals that 14 percent of agency-issued smartphones, tablets, cell phones and wireless modem aircards — a total of 2,280 mobile devices — went unused for at least seven months. This failure to maintain an accurate inventory of such devices cost American taxpayers $679,000 over the seven-month period from June through December 2013. And that’s a conservative estimate. Over the course of a year, taxpayers are likely paying out nearly $1.2 million for mobile devices that are never taken out of the box.

NASA’s negligence extends to laptops as well. The agency doesn’t even know how many laptops it has. As a result, it’s impossible to determine whether encryption software intended to protect sensitive information, decreed as mandatory, was actually installed on the devices.

The inspector general pinpoints the problem. “NASA officials admitted they had no authoritative database” of its inventory of laptops and mobile devices. The agency can’t dispute an erroneous charge if it doesn’t know why it’s paying the bill.

NASA has no way of determining whether it even receives the equipment it pays for, or whether the agency needed the item in the first place. Nobody thought it was worth establishing a policy to make sure expensive monthly data charges and cell phone service is activated for devices that never leave the box. If NASA can’t track a cell phone, it’s a very good thing it isn’t currently sending anyone into space (assuming that it hasn’t sent someone into space and forgot about him).

NASA is not the only bureaucracy to fritter away taxpayer money this way. The Washington Times reported last year that the Internal Revenue Service, which holds everyone else to close accounting, wasted $1.1 million on nearly 14,000 aircards and 754 BlackBerrys that went unused for at least three consecutive months.

It’s not just wasteful federal bureaucrats. A 2012 audit at the North Carolina Department of Transportation discovered hundreds of mobile phones, pagers and aircards that went unused, which cost state taxpayers $369,607. The school district in Palm Beach County, Fla., paid out $14,898 for unused cell phones and aircards in 2012.

It isn’t asking much of NASA and other government agencies to pay attention to their bills. The rest of us do, and they can, too. The clerks and purchasing agents who order expensive equipment and administrators who let it go untouched could be held personally accountable. If they had to chip in to pay the bill they incurred they would pay more attention next time.