IG: Energy employees violated purchase card rules at Yucca Mountain

Review of $3.6 million in transactions from 2007 to 2009 showed potential for abuse, but no improper purchases.

Energy Department officials did not follow established policies and procedures for using purchase cards at the Yucca Mountain Project, the proposed storage facility for spent nuclear fuel 90 miles west of Las Vegas, according to a review of transactions between January 2007 to February 2009 by the department's watchdog.

In a report released on Tuesday, Herbert Richardson, Energy's principal deputy inspector general, found that a key official did not approve or review purchase card transactions in advance and did not always review cardholders' account statements in a timely manner. Another approving official was not certified for the role, despite acting in that capacity, and two purchase cardholders shared account numbers and allowed others to make purchases using those numbers -- all violations of federal requirements.

Such weaknesses "could expose the department to the risk of fraud, waste or abuse," Richardson wrote, although he noted that the audit did not uncover any improper purchases.

The IG review included a General Services Administration purchase card program administered by Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, as well as the purchase card system administered by Bechtel SAIC Co. LLC, the managing contractor from Nov. 14, 2000, to March 31, 2009. The IG's office reviewed $3.6 million worth of transactions that occurred between January 2007 and February 2009 in both programs.

Four out of nine cardholders told auditors they usually did not obtain pre-approval for purchases, despite the fact they did not hold blanket letters of approval from an approving official, as required by department policy.

Of the account statements reviewed from June 2008 through January 2009, auditors found 56 percent had not been reviewed by a designated approving official by the required date. Some were not reviewed at all, while others weren't reviewed until several months after the billing cycle ended.

The office's "failure to adhere to both pre-purchase and post-purchase requirements undermines internal controls intended to assure that department funds are not wasted or misused," Richardson wrote, noting that approving officials' review of purchases is the most essential management tool in controlling abuse of purchase cards.

While not an explicit violation of department policy, the office also had been using purchase cards to pay for monthly utilities, something that is not considered among best practices, the report noted.

The report recommended that officials in the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management issue blanket letters of approval where appropriate; that designated officials approve all transactions prior to payment; that all approving officials be certified as such; that officials enforce the prohibition against sharing purchase card numbers; and that the office consider paying recurring utility bills under an appropriate service contract.

Christopher Kouts, acting director of the office, agreed with all recommendations in a memo to Richardson.

The Obama administration and Congress intend to end the Yucca Mountain Project next year. In the meantime, the project is essentially on hold while a blue-ribbon panel seeks an alternative plan for nuclear waste storage and disposal.