State Audit Finds Sloppy Credit-Card Logging

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

A report issued yesterday by a state auditor says the Montgomery County school system needs to get a better grip on its credit cards.

The audit found lax oversight of the American Express cards issued to at least 1,400 employees of Maryland's largest school system. The cards give employees a bit too much freedom to spend, according to the 68-page analysis from the state Office of Legislative Audits. Employees made $5.6 million in purchases with the cards in fiscal 2007.

School system rules require that all purchases be logged and approved by a supervisor. But in a sampling of 161 credit-card transactions from 2007, auditors found 50 that were not logged and 41 that were logged but apparently not approved. The audit also found 512 purchases with no "obvious relationship" to school business, including charges from department stores and party supply stores.

Parent activists have been questioning the wisdom of issuing corporate cards to a large number of school system employees and challenging many of the purchases, such as a $467 dinner at a Rockville restaurant charged to the card of a senior administrator. The Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County has posted several employees' card logs on its Internet site.

"The first issue is, we've entrusted them with the stewardship of this money. And what we trust is they're using it in the best interest of the schoolchildren," said Janis Sartucci, a leader of the parent advocacy group.

School system leaders accepted many of the auditor's recommendations, such as the need to follow through on logging and approving every purchase made on a credit card.

"I think we have a great process in place," said Larry Bowers, chief operating officer. "I think we just haven't been following it in some cases."

Bowers said school system employees reviewed every purchase cited in the audit and found no improprieties. Some items purchased in department stores, for example, went to needy schoolchildren.

The state auditor's findings echo reports from the school system's own auditors, who have documented sloppy recordkeeping and undisciplined credit-card use at schools. The state report recommends that the internal audit unit be expanded and that it report directly to the school board rather than to one of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's administrators "as a means to promote audit independence."

Weast disagreed, writing in a response to the auditors that he is "the person primarily responsible for the fiscal integrity of the school system."

The spending habits of one senior administrator, former deputy superintendent John Q. Porter, came into question last year after Porter had left Montgomery to become superintendent in Oklahoma City. The school board there suspended Porter, largely on allegations of extravagant spending; Porter ultimately resigned, saying the allegations were mostly false. In 2006, while he was a deputy superintendent in Montgomery, Porter had charged a $1,380 first-class airplane ticket and a $597 tab at Ruth's Chris Steak House, among other things. Montgomery officials said Porter left the county in good standing.

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