In a world of billion-dollar budgets, a dispute over a couple of hundred dollars in travel vouchers may seem like small potatoes. But because the General Services Administration is about to give government travelers special charge cards, and because the dispute involves the agency's former third-ranking official, it reverberates right to the top.

A while back, after receiving two tips on the agency's hot line, the inspector general began an investigation of travel vouchers submitted by Steven L. Hammer, associate adminstrator for operations.

Hammer, however, asked the Office of Plans, Programs and Financial Management, which originally had screened the vouchers, to review them again. Then ethics officer Saul Katz, an aide to administrator Gerald P. Carmen, told the IG that Carmen thought that review would suffice.

Although Katz told IG Joseph A. Sickon that "Hammer undoubtedly devoted less than the necessary degree of attention to the details of entries in some of the vouchers," the review was turned over to the same low-level clerks who had reviewed the vouchers in the first place, not to professional investigators.

The IG's audit of just five of Hammer's trips showed two dozen improper reimbursements for travel expenses that were not incurred, including cab rides that the IG said weren't taken and several meals that Hammer billed to the government but that were purchased by others.

Although the IG questioned 16 percent of the amount Hammer received in the reimbursements he examined, Katz said that "no fraudulent intent appears involved." The clerks' review of 44 other Hammer trips found nothing amiss.

Carmen said this week that he is concerned that an exhaustive review was not conducted.

"It was my understanding that all of his travel records were checked. I'm getting a little different story about the incident now than at the beginning," he said.

Hammer said that in his first 18 months on the job he unknowingly violated government regulations by seeking reimbursement for liquor he had consumed on his trips. But the second round of reviews didn't reject those expenses.

Additional confusion surrounds the settlement between Hammer and GSA controller Raymond J. Fontaine, whose office did the final review. In August, Fontaine accepted a $98.40 check to settle $126.50 in discrepancies found by the IG. (The IG had questioned $250.24 worth of reimbursements but couldn't prove that all of that was improper.)

On the eve of Hammer's return to the private sector as Washington vice president for the Goodyear Aerospace Corp., a GSA news release said the $98 was "an amount acceptable to the comptroller after conferring on the questioned items with Hammer."

Fontaine said he never spoke to Hammer about that. "I don't know where public affairs got that from," he said. "Why would I have settled at less than what the IG wanted me to collect? That's absurd."

Hammer said Fontaine asked him to pay the full amount but he refused to ante up $28.10. "I didn't want to make that big a thing about it," he said. "I just paid up the $98 and left."

"Those type of things that Hammer did would be hard to catch when we're using only clerks," Fontaine said. But he said that "The charge cards will give us more information and make the system safer."

While acknowledging that he could have "been negligent in not holding his Hammer's hand more to explain the regulations," Fontaine said he opposes a plan by Carmen that would require every employe who receives a government issue Diner's Club card to undergo training and sign an instruction sheet.