GAO Finds Problems in Forest Service With Use of Uncle Sam’s Credit Cards

The GAO reviewed purchases by employees using government credit cards and recommends better internal controls at the agency

If the GAO or agency inspectors general want to find waste, fraud and abuse it apparently isn’t hard. All they have to do is to check into the use of government credit cards and they will find it. has recently run reports of abuse at USDA and HUD. Next up: the US Forest Service which is actually part of the Department of Agriculture but was singled out for purposes of this report by the GAO.

The good news is that there are not any cited instances of employees buying tickets to rock concerts, employees purchasing tattoos to show off when going back to the office, lap dances and drinks at local entertainment centers close to a government conference or other charges that the inspectors usually cite as “questionable.” (For more interesting examples, including the check kiting scheme at USDA, check out the articles and reports on the left hand side of this page.)

This latest investigation centered on government purchase cards and not travel cards. This GAO review focused on the $320 million of disbursements that the Forest Service made for purchase card transactions during fiscal year 2001, the most recent fiscal year for which complete data were available when the GAO did its review.

Overall, the report was not as bad as has been uncovered at other agencies. Whether that is because this investigation only focused on government charge cards and not travel cards; whether the employees at the Forest Service are more meticulous; or whether there are better controls at the agency than in other agencies is hard to tell. But, all in all, it was still bad enough to be interesting reading and to make a number of taxpayers mad and even more suspicious that their tax dollars are not being spent wisely.

In summary, here is what the GAO found at the Forest Service: “Significant internal control weaknesses in the Forest Service’s purchase card program leave the agency vulnerable to, and in some cases resulted in, improper, wasteful, and questionable purchases, some of which were potentially fraudulent.” How much waste, fraud and abuse was uncovered? According to the GAO, “Internal control weaknesses likely contributed to approximately $2.7 million in improper, wasteful, and questionable purchases identified during our review.”

As readers have come to expect, here are some of the more interesting purchases uncovered during the investigation of what Forest Service personnel have purchased with government purchase cards:

* pornographic movies

* a subscription to NFL games on premium channel television

* specialty costumes and a decorative tent

* an aquarium

* one billiard table.

GAO recommended improvement in the agency’s internal controls as the investigation only represents a sampling of purchases and the lack of controls makes the agency vulnerable to wider abuses.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47