DHS pledges to update purchase card regulations

Homeland Security Department officials on Wednesday told lawmakers they will update and reissue guidelines for use of purchase cards.

DHS' pledge came after the Government Accountability Office and the department's inspector general pointed to routine violations of a draft version of its purchase card users' manual. The department also failed to maintain adequate records on card use, investigators said.

The cards are issued to employees to buy necessary items while in the field, but auditors pointed out questionable purchases.

"There's strong indication that [DHS gives out] too many cards," said Gregory Kutz, GAO's forensic audits and special investigations managing director. GAO and the DHS inspector general found, in a joint report to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that nearly 2,500 purchase cards went completely unused.

For the approximately 10,000 cards in circulation during a five-month period beginning in June 2005, the report found that 45 percent of purchases lacked the required prior written authorization, 63 percent failed to confirm that goods and services were received and 53 percent did not give priority to already designated vendors. GAO said the required authorizations are not hard to obtain.

"It can be something as simple as an e-mail," Kutz said at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

The report highlighted instances of wasteful purchases by DHS agencies. Among them: The Secret Service spent more than of $7,000 on iPods and failed to produce evidence that they were actually used for "training and data storage;" and $68,000 went to "canine booties" to protect dog paws from debris during Gulf Coast recovery operations but the "booties continue to sit unused in [Federal Emergency Management Agency] storage." Additionally, more than 100 FEMA laptops went missing, at a cost of about $300,000, the report said. Also, a 63-inch television bought for $8,000 was found unopened.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said shortly before Wednesday's hearing that DHS notified her and other members that some of the missing laptops have been located. Kutz said the accuracy of that statement could be checked by matching the serial numbers for the found computers with the serial numbers used in writing the report, a recommendation with which a DHS official agreed.

"We will use the serial numbers the GAO is talking about," said David Norquist, DHS' chief financial officer. "Verify, verify, verify."

Norquist said the manual that regulates how purchase cards are to be used is being completed, based on the recommendations in the report. He did not say when it would be pushed into its completed stage.

"We don't want to bog it down in layers of bureaucracy," he told the committee.

Late Wednesday, DHS issued a statement saying the iPods in question were "used by the Electronic Crimes Task Force, as such devices are increasingly being used by criminal elements to illicitly store and transfer information," but did not describe exactly how they were used. DHS also said it limited its purchase cards' maximum usage to a fraction of what was congressionally approved and noted that roughly one-tenth of a percent of card purchases were deemed "questionable."

Kutz testified that the GAO-IG report indicates that "the government is particularly vulnerable when using purchase cards in times of disaster."

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