GAO Finds Fraud in Commuter Program

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's a perk of federal employment: a free monthly subsidy that pays for commutes on public transportation. But scores of workers have been taking the government for a ride, selling their benefits on the Internet and pocketing millions in cash each year.

The program, which covers 300,000 federal employees nationwide, has been abused by workers across a variety of agencies, the Government Accountability Office will report to Congress today. Workers in the Washington region alone have defrauded the government of at least $17 million a year, with the actual figure probably several million dollars higher, according to the GAO.

Employees have taken the benefit vouchers, known locally as Metrocheks, and turned them into a kind of black-market currency, selling them -- often at a discount off the face value -- to buyers who can use them to ride Metro, regional buses or commuter railroads.

Workers have been accepting the transit subsidies but driving to work, or claiming a subsidy far greater than their commuting costs and selling the excess, GAO investigators found. For example, one employee at the Department of Transportation claimed the maximum benefit of $105 per month, but his commute cost $54.

Meanwhile, agencies have been handing out transit subsidies to employees who receive free parking spaces, to employees who no longer work for the government and, in some cases, to people who apparently were never employed by the agencies.

Monitoring sales on eBay over three days last August, GAO investigators found 58 people selling Metrochek cards and investigated 20, all of whom were federal employees. Among them:

· A Northern Virginia man who works for the Transportation Department and has been receiving the maximum transit subsidy since 2004, even though he often "slugs" to work -- jumping into the impromptu carpools on I-95/395 lanes -- gets a ride with a neighbor or rides his motorcycle. He sold his unused Metrocheks, worth $1,080, on eBay. He told investigators he did not know it was illegal, despite a warning on the cards.

· Both members of a married couple working at the Defense Department received transit subsidies but drove to work together. The husband told investigators he sold 61 lots of Metrocheks, worth $6,000, on eBay. The wife denied selling hers and said she used her subsidy for personal travel -- a violation of the program -- but both spouses' names appeared on the eBay accounts.

· A worker at the Internal Revenue Service received monthly transit subsidies since 2004 and at the same time had a free parking space at his office. He told investigators that he sold Metrocheks valued at $930 on eBay.

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