Purchase card pandemonium

The sky is falling! Someone abused a government-issued credit card. Having people on Capitol Hill scream fraud and abuse is not unlike Claude Raines being surprised to find gambling in Rick's in "Casablanca." Enron contributions, anyone? Know someone at Arthur Andersen?

Let's take a closer look at some of those campaign donations to Congress before people go headline seeking at the expense of one of the most innovative, successful programs in government. Here's what we know for sure: n More than 415,000 federal workers hold purchase cards. They made about 25 million purchases in fiscal 2001, totaling almost $14 billion.

n The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command has had a few bad apples.

n Deidre Lee, director of Defense Department procurement, is doing something. "I am serious about remedying this clearly unacceptable situation. I intend to personally verify that the situation has improved and report findings to you by the end of May," she testified March 13 before the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee.

n In the 13 years since the SmartPay program (formerly the International Merchant Purchase Authorization Card program) began, I recall fraud abuse headlines less than five times.

Have there been problems since the practice of issuing cards started in 1989? Of course. Has there been cause to start a multimillion-dollar inquiry on Capitol Hill? Some Congress members have lots of time on their hands, and rather than look at themselves and maybe their home-district pet projects, they'd rather line up at the curb of the next potential media obsession.

But let's look at a few more facts:

n There is a better paper trail now with the credit cards than when the government used imprest funds.

n Remedies are available from the banks that own the contracts, such as blocking entire Standard Industrial Classification/North American Industry Classification categories from card use.

n The government has saved hundreds of millions of dollars in paper-based procurement costs since the inception of the program.

n Purchase cards allow line managers in the field to get products and services when they need them, not 60 days later.

n Of the 415,000-plus cardholders, only a few have violated the public trust.

I am not making excuses for any financial abuse that occurs in government. But I am truly tired of a few self-serving lawmakers screaming from on high about matters of which they know little, if anything.

The overall success of the SmartPay program is proven: It saves the government time and money in the acquisition of products and services often needed on very short notice. It enables legitimate vendors to bank money quickly, making them more willing to work with the government, where margins remain tight.

Not that I have a strong opinion on the matter. But it makes me wish more wrestlers would run for public office.

Amtower is a partner in Amtower and Co. in Ashton, Md. This column represents his personal views.

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