washingtonpost.com
Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, April 9, 2008 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining this discussion today. My colleague at The Post, Dan Eggen, provided us with an exclusive report this morning on continued abuse of federal credit cards, as documented by the Government Accountability Office. I look forward to reading your comments on the Government Accountability Office findings and what you think is wrong with the system.

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Federal City: As a federal employee, I get so aggravated when I hear these stories. Where I work, our travel expenses and credit card bills are scrutinized (and rightly so) with such detail that I can't imagine how these expenses got reimbursed or covered. Is there any effort to dock the offenders' pay to cover these ludicrous expenses?

Stephen Barr: It is rather amazing that agencies don't spot questionable purchases and ask questions. In some cases, the offenders do reimburse their agencies, but that does not seem to be a standard rule.

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Bahama, N.C.: Are the federal employees who misuse government credit cards charged with theft and prosecuted? I cannot imagine that a private corporation would work out restitution and retirement deals for employees who had viewed pornography on their computers and made questionable "dating service" charges on company credit cards. Are government prosecutors just too lazy to do their jobs, or are these miscreants protected by their superiors and the good ol' boy network?

Stephen Barr: The GAO report includes examples of people being disciplined by their bosses and of some who underwent criminal prosecution. This gets back to one of the main issues pointed out by GAO -- agencies don't know what is being bought and what is happening to the goods. It is difficult for an agency to discipline someone for misconduct -- when it doesn't even know the misconduct is taking place.

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Washington: I'm not surprised by the GAO's report regarding the ludicrous Government Credit Card spending. I also am not surprised to learn that the Government Credit Card tends to be viewed as the employee's personal credit card. Somehow, all that travel-card usage training given to us by our agencies seems to go in one ear and out the other -- knowledge to be forgotten once we're out in the field and using the card.

Stephen Barr: So do we need more training? Longer training? More scrutiny for what is being bought?

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Purchase Card issue: When I was a manager, I had two card-holders who misused their cards. When caught, one was remorseful, contrite and ashamed. The other was brazen and unconcerned. The second one had an official reprimand in his Official Personnel Folder, never was supposed to handle money again, etc. Would you guess that within two years, he was promoted (by someone else), was a financial officer, and was back in business? So much for the rules!

Stephen Barr: That's a true horror story!

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Former Fed: I can tell you they need to cut up 99 percent of those cards that are out there. The forest service in particular (where I worked) hands them out like candy, with little to no oversight. It's just mishap waiting to happen, and frequently it does. The whole thing is a joke in my opinion ... but then again so are half the feds in the city doing the same job that three or four other people are doing. Why do you think I got out?

Stephen Barr: There have been steps in that direction. GAO says that the number of purchase cards in federal circulation peaked in 2000 at more than 670,000, but since has been cut to around 300,000.

The Office of Managment and Budget in 2005 put out guidelines on who should get cards. Guess we need more guidelines? Or more enforcement?

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Kansas City, Mo.: Comment -- the headline and the story seem to miss the fact that the employees holding the cards are responsible to pay for whatever they charge. These are government-sponsored cards that are issued to the employees; the employee pays for the fancy underwear or $13,000 dinner or whatever, not the government. The government's rules forbid use of the cards for personal purchases, so that's the law and what they've done is wrong, but it is not really a big deal. The government does not get stuck paying for the fancy underwear or $13,000 dinner. That always goes back to the employee. This story is really just a headline-grabber, a distraction from more serious good-government stories, as well as from that incredible and continuing catastrophe called Iraq. Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Good point. But I think we're back to this notion that the government does not know what is being bought, so when an employees puts in for reimbursement, the agency just picks up the tab.

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Washington: Wow, the credit card misuse is another black eye for the feds. Because the charges are were made on individual government credit cards, the auditors should be able to collect from the violators -- but I saw nothing in the press about restitution. So this will just end up being yet another benefit at the taxpayers' expense!

Stephen Barr: This is probably hit for taxpayers, but the GAO report does say that the employee who was charging an Internet dating service had to pay restitution as did the employee who let her boyfriend use a card for gambling, loan and mortgage payments.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Stephen, as a current fed I just wanted to say that this misuse of government credit cards is exactly the sort of thing that gives working for the federal government a bad reputation. How does something like this happen unless there is a severe lack of accountability and/or support from upper management?

Stephen Barr: Well, Silver Spring, I think that is where the problem is.

But it is disappointing that so many employees either don't care about the rules, or think they can get away with it, or frankly don't even seem to know the difference between right and wrong.

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Washington: "So when an employees puts in for reimbursement, the agency just picks up the tab." So the use of the credit card isn't a problem (per se) but rather the illegal/improper filing of reimbursement form(s). The card is just the medium for purchase. The reimbursement forms (which likely have some language about the expenses being official government business and fraudulent activity is a no-no) get the funds.

Stephen Barr: I don't think we can have it both ways here. I've never met a private-sector employee who did not perfectly understand that his corporate credit card was to be used only for business purposes. It is called trust. Do we really have a large number of federal employees who cannot distinguish between a personal purchase and a business-use purchase?

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Washington: I hate to think the fed-haters have another story to trot out to show what awful people we "all" are. Just buying pens on the credit card practically requires a blood oath around here, and there's only one person in our entire office with a card.

Stephen Barr: I share your concern, Washington. This gives government critics another reason to question the way Uncle Sam does business, no doubt about it. And, to be sure, many more employees do not abuse their privileges. But government life is that of a fish bowl, and as long as we have Congress and the GAO, probes are going to be conducted. Why do people do this?

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Harpers Ferry, W.Va.: For the majority of responsible card users, I suspect this means a round of "punish the peons"...

Stephen Barr: Yep.

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Washington: Many years ago (decades), our agency changed the credit card policy such that charges on each credit card are sent to the employee holding the card, and the employee must pay for them (versus the previous method where one large bill came to the agency each month and was paid by the agency). I thought all agencies did the same. Sure, you can "abuse" the government card, because it has long grace periods, etc., but ultimately you were responsible for the charges. The articles in the Post do not specifically state whether or not the agencies paid the bills or the employees did. Do you know which it is? If the employee was on the hook, I really don't see the big deal.

Stephen Barr: The GAO report is not explicit on this issue, but its tone suggests that the agencies simply reimbursed for all these changes, usually without asking any questions.

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Midwest: I agree with Federal City -- in my office, every item on the purchasing card is reviewed by a supervisor; thus there is plenty of blame for the supervisor if such shenanigans happen on their watch. The travel card is a little different. I don't know, because occasionally someone might pull out the wrong card, that many venders are blocked on the travel card -- for example, office supply stores. On the other hand, the card holder pays the bill and makes a claim on a travel voucher for the reimbursable items. That said, personal expenses not subject to vouchering never should be charged on the travel card. From a travel card holder and former authorizing official.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Midwest. I hate to pile on here and hold supervisors and managers responsible, because I'm not sure all are in the loop when much of this stuff flows right into the backroom accounting offices. Still, it seems this GAO report will give supervisors an opportunity to warn employees that there will be consequences if cards are misused in their offices.

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Washington: You should also note that we feds were forced to get government travel cards issued to us so that the federal government could share in the 1 percent to 2 percent rebate of travel purchases placed on the cards.

Stephen Barr: Travel cards are slightly different; this GAO report is focused on purchase cards. But your larger point is correct. The report says that the government received refunds of more than $170 million in fiscal 2007 from the banks that issued the cards. That is only one reason why the government went to this system, though. The goal was to reduce paperwork involved in purchasing, and the report does say that it saved $1.8 billion annually, compared to prior paper-based processes.

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Washington: In response to a question you ask ("So do we need more training?"), I'm sorry, but you need to train employees not to use government money for lingerie, dating services, etc.? I think it is appalling to suggest that anyone anywhere -- but especially in government (city, state, federal), where public money is being spent -- needs training in being ethical and honest. What is the hiring pool these employees are drawn from? Come on!

Stephen Barr: You're right. I withdraw the suggestion.

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Washington: I think it's hilarious that Hill staffers don't want their low salaries printed in the paper when they terrorize agencies on a daily basis. Take that.

washingtonpost.com: House Staffers Livid Over Web Site (Post, April 9)

Stephen Barr: Yes, some irony here.

Still, I think some of the financial data made public went beyond salaries and bonuses, and perhaps that is crossing the line. In making the use of taxpayer funds transparent, we should respect some privacy rights, it seems to me.

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Washington: Hello Stephen. When I read stories like this it always makes me think of when I worked in Korea and we would send things out for printing. A lot of the printers could not charge your card, so they would have another company would do it for them, sometimes a grocery store or whatever, making it look like you spent $2,000 at a local grocery store when actually you did not.

Stephen Barr: A nice example, but I don't think that is what happened here.

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Credit Card Usage: Yikes! I'm a long-time fed; when the new employees ask me what they can charge on their government-issued travel cards, my standard reply is "don't charge anything that you would not want to see on the front page of The Washington Post." Thanks for the validation!

Stephen Barr: That's good advice on all matters!

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Washington: Ugh. I hope this does not mean more scrutiny on card purchases at my agency. As it is, any purchase over the card threshold is like pulling teeth with the amount of justification required, and usually we have to do another justification (for all purchases mind you) a few months later once an audit rolls around.

Stephen Barr: Perhaps. A Senate bill on this topic would require audits and risk-assessment analyses, along with additional controls and safeguards. That bill could move through committee tomorrow. Keep track of those invoices and receipts!

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Washington: I'm a Federal Employee and am disgusted and amazed at these expenses. I get preapproval for expenses and make sure that everything is documented. My unit makes sure that everything is on the up-and-up too. Not only should the offenders be punished, but the AOs who authorized and did not question the expenses should be as well.

Stephen Barr: Hear hear.

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Washington: Stephen, thanks for taking our questions. I wonder if the generic use of purchase cards is the actual purchase card or travel card. If it's the purchase card, at my agency, you better have written approval before you buy anything. I spend a lot of money on IT needs, but everything -- and I do mean everything-- has to go through the process. If it doesn't, it's an unratified procurement. Not good when you have to have your bank card statement signed off on at the end of the month.

Stephen Barr: The report focused on purchase cards, and it is good to hear that a system is working properly in at least one place.

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Washington:"So do we need more training?" No, the federal government needs managers to hold people accountable. If someone refuses to be held accountable -- managers included -- then they should be fired, not sent to training!!

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the posting.

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Washington: The use of those high-fee "convenience checks" and cash advances is appalling. These should be disallowed.

Stephen Barr: That is one of the GAO recommendations -- to scale back the use of convenience checks.

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Washington: In my office, we're responsible for paying the expenses ourselves, even if we haven't received our reimbursement yet. The travel vouchers are scrutinized by my supervisor, the deputy director, two high-level admin assistants and the budget shop. Sure, it's only a travel card and not a purchase one, but it's still possible to buy non-travel-related items with it. I know people who haven't even finished with their travel who have had their charges questioned. I can't believe some agencies just reimburse without really looking into things.

Stephen Barr: Yes, is is rather disheartening.

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Denver: I was once reprimanded and had a huge fight with Washington for not using my government credit card for meals and hotels while traveling on official business.

Stephen Barr: Remember, it's all about coloring within the lines!

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Washington: Thanks for taking this question. I work at a private company and have received an offer to join the federal government, contingent on my receiving a security clearance. The clearance paperwork says the agency will contact my current employer; the HR specialist in charge of my file says that he will not. Can I rely on HR's assurance? Although I prefer to postpone giving notice until after the clearance goes through, it's important to me that I (and not the agency) break the news to my current employer.

Stephen Barr: No easy answer here. I assume if you've locked in the job, then you probably ought to tell your current employer. (And who knows, you might get a better offer to stay.)

Any thoughts on this, folks?

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Alexandria, Va.: I just turned 65 and I guess I have to sign up for Medicare Part A, but I am still working in private industry and receive my health benefits through the federal government as a retiree. So, do I still have to sign up for Part B? I read the literature, and it doesn't mention what to do if you receive federal health insurance. Thanks, I love your online chats -- so helpful.

Stephen Barr: You do not have to sign up for Part B, but most retirees still do, unless they feel the premium is too steep for their pocketbooks. Typically, Medicare will be the first payer, if you have coverage under FEHBP, and Part B does cover some things that the federal plans do not. Your federal plan also may waive certain fees and copays because you have Part B, so check that out. It's basically a personal decision.

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West Palm Beach, Florida: Do most Federal retirees sign up for Medicare Part B and retain their federal health plan as the supplemental? I am not sure I see the benefit of having both Medicare Part B and the BlueCross BlueShield standard option. Thank you.

Stephen Barr: As noted above, yes, most retirees still sign up for Part B. It provides them with a huge comfort level -- almost 100 percent coverage. That said, you might want to review your FEHBP coverage. It might work out for you to take some other, lower cost, FEHBP plan, and maintain an adequate level of coverage.

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Washington: I have a question regarding accrued leave. Ten years ago I worked in the senate for approximately four years; after some time in the private sector, I'm now working with a federal agency. Am I eligible to use my time in the senate toward my accrued leave now? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: I'm assuming here you are talking about the leave accrual rate and whether your years of Senate service will entitle you to a higher rate. The answer probably is yes, but it would depend on what kind of appointment you had with the Senate. You really have to check with your personnel shop on this one.

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Augusta, Maine: As a new Social Security Administration hire, I was signed up by the government for a credit card so that I could have access to funds while attending training out of state. Since then, I have tried to cancel or turn in my cards, as I do not want the liability while it's in my possession. It is not expected that I will need to attend additional training, so I really can't understand why I can't just get rid of it.

Stephen Barr: Your job probably comes with a designation that a card is necessary. Lock it up at home in a safe place?

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Manassas, Va.: Seems like there are no common rules for credit cards. We have a small office and have a card for purchases less than $2,500 that get reviewed by supervisors. Those of us who travel have cards that only are activated when we have the travel authorizations in place, but are billed directly and expected to pay and get a refund for the costs incurred while traveling. In theory my card (when activated) could be used for anything, but I would be responsible for the payment minus what I can get refunded for travel.

Stephen Barr: The lack of an understandable governmentwide policy is one of the problems that GAO pointed out.

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Washington: In many agencies, there's no advantage to the card -- you have the same grace period as a personal card. I haven't used one in years. The last thing I want to do is reward some contractor who exists only to furnish a service we can provide ourselves.

Stephen Barr: Well, the government does like to get a share of the profits generated by use of credit cards. But you make a good point.

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Washington: After screening and rating hundreds of applicants (resume and 10 pages of essays), identifying the 60 or so top-qualified, and running those people through panel interviews and a day-long executive assessment center process, the Office of Personnel Management announced last week that they have halted the Federal SES Candidate Development Program (FedCDP) and will start over from scratch in May. Agencies were to have made final selections and extended offers for the 20 available slots in the program by next Tuesday. OPM made this announcement on the same day that GAO issued a report on promoting diversity in the SES and the same day as a hearing on the hill on the same topic. Neither OPM nor the agencies involved are providing any explanation for OPM's abrupt (and costly) 11th-hour decision other than that there were "irregularities." Have you heard anything about this?

Stephen Barr: Nope. But I'll ask OPM about this. Thanks!

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Beltsville, Md.: If the abuse is that bad, then destroy all the cards and give the purchasing responsibilities back to the purchasing and contract staffs that were reduced years ago. I don't think more training will help -- I think further accountability will, but I say give these responsibilities back to the people who were trained and hired to do this type of work for the government. I'm tired of being lumped in with those who abuse things...

Stephen Barr: I understand perfectly, Beltsville. This has turned out to be a tough balancing act for the government. As you point out, the purchasing officers know the rules and would prevent much of this type of misuse. However, they are overworked in many agencies and the government has serious problems already keeping track of really big purchases. In that environment, these charges might be at the end of everybody's priority list. Clearly, though, something needs to be done; this is just too embarrassing, and there have been too many of these types of reports.

Once again folks, we've run out of time. Thanks for your comments and questions! We'll see you back here at noon next Wednesday.

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