A warning ought to accompany the 35-page audit of the thousands of state-issued credit cards adrift in state agencies:
"Do not read on a full stomach. Findings could make taxpayers queasy."
About 20,000 state-issued credit cards are apparently in circulation, some in the names of individuals, some kept in desks for use by almost anyone in the department. In 2006, a total of $300 million was charged on these cards, yet there appears to be little review of the legitimacy of the transactions made using those cards, according to a scathing audit released last week.
The cards are supposed to save tax dollars by giving agencies greater flexibility and agility on the ground to complete small and routine purchases without a lot of red tape. That makes sense. Unfortunately, in the absence of oversight that flexibility opens the door to abuse.
The most flagrant abuses uncovered by auditors took place in state universities — four university employees have been referred to the attorney general for possible criminal prosecution.
In the worst case, a low-level employee at Georgia Tech racked up $40,000 in suspected fraudulent charges. She paid her son’s auto insurance and her cellphone bills on the taxpayers’ tab and bought a diamond ring and digital cameras.
The charges went undetected because the employee didn’t submit receipts or monthly credit card statements for 18 months, and no one at Tech noticed.
When auditors finally did come nosing around, the woman found a supervisor to OK the purchases after the fact.
At Georgia Perimeter, an employee tallied $13,600 in suspicious charges, buying gift cards that she then used to pay her bills.
Another allegedly used her card to make $2,000 in car payments and rent a $340 hotel room in Hawaii.
The concern that illegal transactions were going undetected led the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts to examine the practices at seven state agencies.
In their sample, they noted shortcomings in every phase of the program — too many employees are handed credit cards; record-keeping of the merchandise purchased is poor; supervisors don’t review the bills sufficiently before they’re paid.
On Friday, an angry Gov. Sonny Perdue directed every executive branch agency to undertake an audit of purchasing cards.
"I have absolutely no tolerance for the purposeful disregard for the public’s trust in use of taxpayer dollars," said Perdue, in a statement. Perdue pledges firings or prosecutions if the audits reveal wrongdoings.
The governor’s outrage is justified, as is his call for holding supervisors accountable. Any manager who approves or overlooks a $1,300 diamond ring on a state credit card, as the audits revealed, deserves to be fired.
WHO’S MINDING THE STORE? APPARENTLY, NO ONE.
Among the findings of a state audit on misuse of state credit cards issued to thousands of employees:
• The purchasing cards were issued to entire departments rather than individuals, making it almost impossible to track which employees had access to the cards and which were responsible for purchases.
• No consistent policies on who reviewed the purchases. At Georgia Tech, one person was responsible for reviewing and approving the activity on 116 cards.
• At Georgia Perimeter College, 95 of 274 card holders had no one approving what they charged on the cards.
• Routinely, no receipts or explanation of the purchases was given, including 27 $100 American Express gift cards bought with a Georgia Tech card.
• At the Department of Human Resources, purchases had the signatures of employees who were not empowered to approve them. In fact, DHR couldn’t even tell the auditors which employees were authorized to approve sales.
• The Georgia Tech employee who ran up $40,000 in suspected fraudulent purchases told auditors that she had not submitted receipts or credit card statements for a year and a half. No one at Tech apparently noticed or cared.
— Maureen Downey, for the Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial board