- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

RICHMOND — Many holders of state-issued travel charge cards have abused the program by charging massages, liquor, lingerie, even crematory services, the state’s auditor of public accounts said yesterday.

Auditor Walter J. Kucharski stressed that the state did not lose any money because “we have found no instances where somebody has requested reimbursement” for such charges.

“But they are not supposed to do it. They are supposed to use this card only for official travel,” he said in an interview.

The travel cards, issued by American Express under a contract with the state, work like personal credit cards, Mr. Kucharski said. The travel cards carry no transaction limits.

William H. Leighty, chief of staff to Gov. Mark Warner, said the state already has started monitoring travel card use more closely.

“It would be easy for the individuals to think that since they are totally responsible for charges on these cards that they could also use them for personal charges,” Mr. Leighty said. “That is not the policy.”

The worst offenders were employees at state universities, with Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia’s academic division, the College of William and Mary, James Madison University and Norfolk State University topping the list for nontravel purchases charged to travel cards in fiscal 2003. They were followed by the state Department of Social Services, George Mason University, Mary Washington College, Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia Medical Center.

Those institutions accounted for 72 percent of the nearly $1.4 million in nontravel purchases charged to the cards by employees at all 126 state agencies and institutions.

In addition to massage therapy and $11,000 for liquor, charges included veterinary services and jewelry purchases and repair.

“We … identified questionable” charges to vendors such as Victoria’s Secret, Carnival Cruise Lines, Best Buy and Neiman Marcus, Mr. Kucharski wrote in the report.

There were 134 charges to Ticketmaster totaling almost $18,000 for tickets to Atlanta Braves baseball games, Broadway shows in New York, and concerts by Bonnie Raitt and Patti LaBelle.

Mr. Kucharski said one of his own employees abused the card. “I had a person who is no longer with me. We had a problem with it [his card] and we took it away from him. He had to start, in essence, financing all of the cost of his travel himself.”

As of June 30, 8,580 employees were participating in the travel card program. Charges to the cards in fiscal 2003 totaled $13.8 million.

But one-third of the cards have not had any charge activity during the past year, meaning former employees may hold a significant number of the inactive accounts, the auditor’s report said. American Express plans to cancel inactive accounts unless the agency or institution notifies them that the cardholder is a valid and eligible employee.

Another problem is that agencies are unsure of their responsibility and do not monitor card activity for charges not related to official state travel, the report said.

“In fact, some agencies erroneously feel that reviewing cardholder activity may violate confidentiality laws,” Mr. Kucharski wrote.

Despite the problems, a properly controlled travel card program is a good idea because it eliminates the need to provide employees with advances and reduces the cost to the state of administering the program, the auditor said.

The state, moreover, should expand the use of the travel card program after developing effective controls, Mr. Kucharski recommended.

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