- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

1:18 p.m.

Department of Homeland Security employees racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unjustified expenses last year wielding government-issued credit cards, including booties for rescue dogs, IPods, designer rain jackets and beer-making equipment, according to a congressional audit released today.

Investigators also cited more than 100 missing laptop computers that department employees bought in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, although officials say at least some have been found.

Poor training, lax oversight and rampant confusion over what employees are allowed to buy with government-issued credit cards “allowed potentially fraudulent, improper, abusive, or questionable transactions to go undetected,” Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigator Gregory D. Kutz said at a hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

He estimated that 45 percent of department purchases with the cards — reviewed from June to November 2005 — were deemed improper.

The report “shows yet again that the Department of Homeland Security seems to be sometimes run more like a college fraternity house than an agency meant to protect us from terror,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Mr. Kutz said about 9,000 department employees carry credit cards for business-related expenses. The cards usually have a $2,500 spending limit, but that was raised to $250,000 for emergencies after Hurricane Katrina hit last Aug. 29.

The department’s Chief Financial Officer David Norquist said new departmentwide spending guidelines will be enforced soon, which should eliminate much of the confusion and ensure that purchases are strictly supervised. He also promised a crackdown on department employees who use their cards improperly.

Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, said he was outraged that the Department of Homeland Security does not already have departmentwide spending standards in place.

“Is it a sense of, ‘Well, it’s not my money?’” the senator asked Mr. Norquist. “We give cards to folks, and ultimately the responsible party is not the cardholder. It’s the government. That’s who’s responsible.”

Answered Mr. Norquist: “I would rather focus on the accountability of the people involved because, in the end, some of these are just about good judgment on the individual with the card.”

Among the expenses investigators described as abusive or questionable:

• More than 2,000 sets of dog booties, costing $68,442, that have sat unused in storage since emergency responders decided they were not suited for canines assisting in Gulf Coast recovery efforts.

• Three portable shower units for $71,170 from a contractor who investigators said overcharged the government.

• 12 Apple IPod Nanos and 42 IPod Shuffles, priced at $7,000, for Secret Service “training and data storage.” Because the Shuffles cost less than $300, the Secret Service said it was not required to track them to ensure they were used properly.

• 37 black Helly Hansen designer rain jackets, costing nearly $2,500, for use in a firing range that the Customs and Border Protection purchaser later acknowledged shuts down when it’s raining.

• A beer-brewing kit and ingredients for more than $1,000 for a Coast Guard official to brew alcohol while on duty as a social organizer for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Investigators also noted that Customs and Border Protection wasted up to $464,586 by buying meals ready to eat on the Internet instead of contracting through the Pentagon, as is standard procedure. They also found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot locate 22 printers and two global positioning system units worth $170,000, as well as 12 of 20 boats the agency bought for $208,000.

Department officials said they have found most of the missing laptops but did not have exact numbers. Senators said this morning that 74 of 107 of the lost computers were reported found.

About 70 department employees have been disciplined for improper card purchases, department officials said. The department spent $435 million with the purchase cards in the 2005 budget year, compared to $296 million in 2004.

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