- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The D.C. Council yesterday voted unanimously to suspend its government-issued credit-card program for 225 days, overriding a veto by Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

During an emergency meeting yesterday, council members considered three objections submitted by the mayor but decided the level of misuse by municipal workers warranted the temporary suspension of the credit-card program.

“We are not killing the program. It can start up again tomorrow if the mayor and agency directors simply increase the reporting on [auditing reviews] they are already doing,” said council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat.

Records show some municipal workers have ignored spending limits on city-issued credit cards by hundreds of thousands of dollars, made questionable purchases and run up interest charges.

Mrs. Cropp convened the council, which had been on its summer recess, a day after Mr. Williams vetoed the bill to suspend the credit cards.

Administration officials said suspending the program would bog down workers in procurement paperwork and procedures for items or services they need quickly.

“The fire department, police and health services work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. … They don’t have time to get three signatures, send out bids for what they need and wait for responses,” said City Administrator John A. Koskinen.

The District’s Purchase Card Program was designed to allow employees to make purchases of $2,500 to $10,000 without going through the lengthy procurement process. Municipal employees have been issued 739 purchase cards, and more than 40 have spending limits of $70,000 a month.

“Current spending rates will allow them to spend $65 million by the end of the fiscal year,” said council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican.

Credit-card expenditures in fiscal 2000 totaled less than $1 million, she added.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat who co-sponsored the suspension legislation, said the program lacks adequate oversight.

Council members insist that directors of city agencies include all expenditures by object class — goods and services, interest payments, discounts and taxes — in their monthly expense reports. They also want agency directors to preapprove all purchases each month and to report all unverified expenditures by object class and employee.

During his weekly press briefing Tuesday and in a letter to the council, Mr. Williams said the proposed reporting requirements are impossible to meet because the information is not readily available. He also said the agency directors cannot preapprove every purchase each month.

“I don’t really take issue with the bill. What I am really upset about is the way it was done without any discussion with me or my people,” the mayor said.

Tony Bullock, Mr. Williams’ spokesman, said the mayor’s office already is making changes to the program to improve financial accountability, including tighter auditing and control systems.

“It’s a triumph of symbolism over substance,” Mr. Bullock said of the council’s override.

Beginning today, Mr. Williams will have 21 days to comply with the bill before the 225-day suspension takes effect.

The Washington Post has reported numerous instances of credit-card misuse in several agencies, costing the city millions of dollars from unauthorized and occasionally personal purchases.

The Washington Times first reported in June that an audit of the public schools found officials could not account for more than $1.6 million in credit-card charges for fiscal 2001, making up about one-quarter of the school system’s $6.3 million credit-card expenses for that year. At the time, the school system had 275 credit cards issued to central school administrators.

“What we have here is a credit-card scandal by any definition, and I am shocked that the administration would attempt to justify not suspending the program or at least enacting sweeping reforms,” said council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat.

Under city law, agencies are required to seek bids for materials and services.

Council members David A. Catania, at-large Republican, and Vincent B. Orange, Ward 5 Democrat, said they were outraged that no municipal employee had been fired or sanctioned and that there had been no effort to recoup dollars from employees who used the cards to buy personal items.

Mr. Orange, chairman of the government operations committee, said he will hold a hearing on the status of reforms to the program in October.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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