DHS disputes GAO card audit

GAO accuses DHS of using weak controls on purchase cards, but agency says the criticism is overstated

The Homeland Security Department enforced weak controls over purchase card use in late 2005, possibly resulting in widespread abuse, according to a recent audit by the Government Accountability Office. DHS, however, disputed GAO’s assertions, arguing that the abuses identified involved less than 1 percent of DHS purchase card transactions.

Such cards allow agencies to make small purchases without going through a formal procurement process.

DHS officials said they have yet to put an agencywide card-use policy in place, but they added that many of the agencies that formed DHS in 2003 have agency policies that are still in effect. DHS is finalizing its card-use guidelines and will activate them within the next few weeks, according to a DHS statement.

In testimony last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, GAO officials said their study was not intended to assess the extent of fraudulent card use at DHS. GAO used data-mining technologies to examine a random sample of purchase card transactions between June 13 and Nov. 12, 2005. GAO conducted the audit as one of several efforts to assess the federal government’s response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The audit revealed that DHS did not properly authorize 45 percent of the transactions in GAO’s sample. DHS could not show evidence that it had received the purchased goods and services for 63 percent of its card transactions, the auditors said.

DHS officials fired back with a statement that the instances of misuse that GAO cited constitute only 0.14 percent of all DHS purchase card transactions. Of the $435 million DHS spent using the cards in 2005, the audit found only about $600,000 worth of questionable purchases, DHS officials wrote.

Previous data-mining efforts on purchase card transactions at other agencies have uncovered examples of improper uses of the card. A 2003 Defense Department study, for example, found a case in which an Army employee bought a Santa Claus costume using a government purchase card.

GAO’s review of DHS found similar questionable purchases among the sampled transactions. Government watchdog groups said they expected GAO to find problems. “This news, albeit disturbing, doesn’t surprise me,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight.

Consultant Mark Amtower, on the other hand, saw little weight in the GAO report. “It is plausible that the GAO report, laden with more adjectives than [examples of real] abuses, is the opening gambit in yet another political re-election season when [lawmakers are] looking for more nonsubstance headlines to mask the fact that they did next to nothing to ensure true homeland security,” he said.

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