Lax oversight at the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the organization’s employees to misuse federal charge cards for buying items such as gym memberships, meals and gift cards, according to a recent watchdog report.

The EPA inspector general’s office found that nearly 52 percent of the purchases in a sampling of 80 “high-risk” transactions were inappropriate and that EPA offices skipped a mandatory biennial review of its payment system.

The review covered fiscal year 2012 charges totaling $152,600, finding that $79,300 in payments were “prohibited, improper and erroneous.” The abuses ranged from buying restricted items to purchasing goods without proper approval.

Auditors faulted the agency’s cardholders and its approving officials for not following EPA and federal guidelines.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

“This indicates an ongoing risk,” the report said. “Improved purchase-card oversight could save the government money, which would be especially helpful in the EPA’s current budget environment.”

Auditors noted that three cardholders bought gym memberships — for themselves and family members in two cases — costing a total of $2,867. One employee also charged $500 worth of environmental-education DVDs, while another acquired a membership to an academic organization.

House lawmakes took action in 2011 to address longstanding problems with federal charge-card abuses, proposing new rules to curb abuses. The next year, Congress passed the Government Charge Card Abuse Prevention Act, which requires periodic reviews of agency purchase-card programs to identify risks of illegal and improper payments.

MORE: Government charge-card abuses could soon be history (2011)

The EPA’s own guidelines also require agency offices to review their purchases at least once every two years to ensure compliance with federal policies.

Half of the EPA’s offices did not follow the federal or agency standards in 2010, and no consequences occurred, according to the audit. “Since the biennial review process was not followed, corrective actions and improved internal controls did not occur and weaknesses continued from 2008 onward,” the report said.

The EPA said it was in full compliance with the review requirements for fiscal 2012 and that the agency has examined its 2010 purchases retroactively to identify problems.

Overall, the EPA’s 1,370 active cardholders made more than $29 million in purchases during fiscal 2012, according to the report.

The EPA agreed with all of the inspector general’s recommendations, which included implementing regular transaction reviews and providing additional training on how to reduce improper purchases for cardholders and managers.

EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said the agency is already taking steps to address the oversight problems, adding that the agency is “implementing improved standard-operating procedures, establishing increased requirements for mandatory transactional documentation and internal audit requirements, and ensuring increased accountability for misuse of purchase cards.”

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