San Diego Union-Tribune

July 26, 2001

Local probe questions use of U.S. credit cards


WASHINGTON -- It was a reform that was supposed to strip away red tape by letting defense workers make purchases of up to $2,500 with a special government credit card.

But a spot check by the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- uncovered a large number of questionable uses of the cards by personnel at two San Diego facilities. The GAO survey found "virtually no control" over the use of the cards, according to a congressional aide who asked not to be identified.

Dozens of employees bought trendy, slim-profile computer monitors at just under the credit limit. Others bought Palm Pilots, and one bought a $400 briefcase, said the aide, who had not seen the report and could not provide a dollar amount in the alleged misuse.

Some of the supposedly official purchases were not logged into inventory files and some could not be located during the GAO visits, the aide said. The
appropriate supervisor didn't authorize many of the purchases and some authorizations appeared to have been backdated.

The alleged abuse of the government purchase cards will be the subject of a hearing Monday by a House Government Reform subcommittee chaired by
Rep. Steve Horn, R-Long Beach.

The GAO review occurred at the Naval and Space Warfare Systems Center and the Public Works Center. The cards are used across the nation. The GAO investigators selected the two San Diego centers believing they were representative, the aide said.

The space warfare command, known as "SpaWars," manages billions of dollars in high-tech research and acquisition programs. Its spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Greg Geisen, said he could not comment because the command has not seen the GAO report. But he confirmed that the San Diego center's commanding officer will testify at the hearing.

The Public Works Center is responsible for maintenance and upkeep of buildings and grounds, roads and utilities at the Navy facilities in the San Diego area. No comment could be obtained from Navy spokesmen in San Diego or elsewhere. Its commander also is expected at the House hearing.

A Navy source noted that GAO's criticism could stem from different views of what constitutes legitimate use of the purchase cards. Palm Pilots and computer monitors are routine items for such units and the Palm Pilots probably do not have to be included on a unit's inventory, the source said.

The purchase cards were adopted as an efficiency measure to avoid the time-consuming and costly procurement process for relatively small, routine
government purchases.

The cards may be used for official purchases of up to $2,500 without going through the paperwork required of major acquisitions.