Lawmakers aim to curb purchase card abuse

Legislation intended to crack down on misuse of government purchase and travel cards was introduced Thursday in both the House and Senate.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. are the primary sponsors of the bills, which would require agencies to improve internal controls of their card programs. Among other things, the legislation would require agencies to periodically review whether an employee actually needs a card. It also calls on each agency inspector general to routinely audit card programs. The lawmakers also want agencies to conduct credit checks on employees before issuing them cards.

The legislation would also require agencies to establish stiff penalties for employees who misuse their cards. These penalties could include docking pay or referring cases to the Justice Department.

Grassley has been on a crusade for the past four years, asking the General Accounting Office to look into card programs at various agencies and departments. GAO has uncovered millions of dollars in inappropriate expenditures.

"Hardworking Americans are paying for government employees' Christmas shopping," Grassley said. "Purchase cards are intended to be used to purchase supplies or other items needed by a government agency. . . . It's hard to justify payments on a sapphire ring, kitchen appliances and gift certificates to department stores as necessary office expenses."

Efforts to improve internal controls of card programs are haphazard, according to Linda Calbom, GAO's director of financial management and assurance. Some agencies are doing a good job, while some are not. Calbom did not comment on specific provisions in the legislation. Nearly all of GAO's reports on card programs during the past couple of years have cited faulty internal controls as the primary culprit for inappropriate expenditures.

The General Services Administration is putting the finishing touches on a best practices manual to help agencies better manage their card programs. The agency expects to publish the manual later this fall. Wilson commended GSA for its efforts, but said Congress cannot wait to see if agencies will adopt the best practices. He said it is necessary for agencies to improve their performance now.