One Employee Racks Up $157,000 In Purchases
NASA, which was
criticized a few months ago for rewarding contractors with
extravagant parties and cruises, is under fire again -- this time,
for letting employees use government-issued purchase cards to buy
personal items and disregard competitive bidding rules.
The expose, by The Houston Chronicle on Sunday, was careful to
point out that most of the 451-thousand transactions it reviewed
were purchases from vendors which appear to sell legitimate
business items. But the paper says that among the 265-million
dollars in credit card charges made between 2004 and 2007 it also
found iPods, video games and jewelry.
Some of the data was found in records provided to the paper by
NASA. The paper also notes the agency's own auditors have brought
purchase card abuses to light in at least five previous internal
reports dating back to 1997.
The Bush administration has ordered federal agencies to tighten
internal controls on the use of government purchase cards. Bill
McNally, NASA's assistant administrator for procurement, says an
internal review will be complete by midsummer.
NASA is hardly alone. The Chronicle's review comes at a time
when Congress is considering tightening purchase card regulations,
following a federal report last month which found widespread abuse
of the card programs.
Congressman Nick Lampson is a democrat whose district includes
the Johnson Space Center. He's been a proponent of better funding
for NASA. He calls the purchase card scandal an affront to the
majority of space agency employees, and is calling for harsh
punishments. "We should be outraged. Everybody should be," Lampson
said. "Clearly we have not done enough."
Keeping tabs on all the
cards out there is a daunting task. NASA says more than 3,200 of
its employees have used them to make purchases between 2004 and
2007. The cards are the functional equivalent of credit cards, but
instead of the user getting a bill and submitting it for
reimbursement, the bills go directly to, and are paid directly by,
the federal government.
Out of at least 160 cases of card abuse referred to NASA
investigators since the start of fiscal 2007, only 25 resulted in
disciplinary action. Most cases are small, but last year, Kennedy
Space Center employee Elizabeth Ann Osborne pleaded guilty to using
her NASA purchase card to buy $157,000 in personal items, including
clothing... jewelry... some $51,000 for Wal-Mart gift cards and
groceries... a $2,000 air conditioning installation at her home...
at least $13,000 in electronics.
A more subtle abuse is buying costly items, which should be
procured through competitive bidding, by breaking the price down
into smaller chunks and paying with multiple swipes of the purchase
card. The Chronicle reported finding about 4,600 cases in which
that happened. Under current law, any federal purchase over $3,000
must go through the competitive bid process.