Personal Liability? This Federal Employee Ended Up Buying Lunch for Everyone

Sometimes a change in government policies can occur as a result of one decision–even if that decision may not initially seem significant. A new decision from GAO may result in a change in the automatic approval of purchases on government purchase cards by holding the certifying official personally liable for the money spent.

As with any large organization, the federal government has lots of rules. People who work there learn what rules have to be followed and what rules the agency does not take seriously.

For years, a reasonable person could conclude that many agencies did not consider the use of government charge cards seriously. Numerous investigations from GAO and various IG offices routinely find misuse totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars of improper expenditures with the plastic cards. For a variety of reasons including, perhaps, the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy, there were not many cases of disciplinary action or employees being found personally liable for charges. (See, for example, Where’s the Outrage?)

But the use of government credit cards has gotten a lot of negative publicity. Some agencies have started to take disciplinary action against employees who misuse credit cards–perhaps because they did not like reading in newspapers around the country about an agency employee buying tickets to a rock concert or tattoos using the government travel cards. The agency taking action has also gotten the support of the MSPB in the appeals that followed a disciplinary action. (See, for example, Cash Advances and Government Travel Card Lead to Suspension)

So, perhaps, Uncle Sam’s civilian army of regulators is starting to get serious about how government money is spent by using the power of plastic.

Here is a new wrinkle that is likely to get the attention of those that approve purchase card expenditures. It does not involve the MSPB or any disciplinary action by the agency. But the result is that a federal employee just lost about $400 for approving the improper payment of funds.

A certifying officer for government purchase card payments has considerable power over what government funds can be spent.

That is apparently the message from the GAO. GAO says that it has not previously “considered the appropriate role for a certifying officer who certifies payment to a credit card bank for uses of a purchase card.”

But GAO has now considered the issue. A federal employee using a government purchase card may find that someone is looking over his shoulder much more closely. That is because, based on this new decision, anyone responsible for certifying payment for a government purchase card will probably take a personal interest. In a new GAO decision involving the the Defense Automatic Addressing Systems Center (DAASC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

As a result of this decision, certifying official Jeffrey Elmore finds himself about $400 poorer. The decision states that: “We conclude that liability attaches to a certifying officer’s certification of the billing statement for payment. Although the amount of the improper payments Mr. Elmore certified is not very large, the wider implications of your request are significant and go directly to the role of a certifying officer with respect to purchase card payments.”

At issue were payments for two lunches for federal employees and defense contractors at a local restaurant, disposable coffee cups, and a $20.00 late fee paid to a university.

If it decides to do so, GAO can forgive certifying officers of pecuniary liability resulting from improper payments. To make this decision, it has to conclude that the obligation was incurred in good faith, that no law specifically prohibited the payment, and that Uncle Sam received value for the payment.

In this case, the Defense Logistics Agency decided that Mr. Elmore was liable for improper purchase card transactions because as the certifying officer for the card, he did not dispute questionable transactions made by the cardholder prior to certifying the transactions for payment. That conclusion, says GAO, is the correct one in this case.

The biggest part of the payments in this case was for lunches he certified for two payments for 16 contractors and 7 federal employees at a local restaurant. The guidance for the use of purchase cards prohibited the purchase of food with a government purchase card so he should have questioned the payment before authorizing it.

As for those disposable coffee cups, the amount as issue was only $22.81. The disposable cups were for visitors. But Mr. Elmore has previously been relieved of personal payment for these same types of cups and, concluded GAO, enough is enough and he has to pay for these cups himself.

Finally, he had to pay the late fee incurred by a student at a local university that had also been charged to the card.

The amount of money involved in this case is probably much less than the administrative costs of pursuing the issue. That is not unusual in government cases but someone in the agency and in GAO thought the principle was important. The result may be more oversight–at least for awhile–on the use of purchase cards. Those using the cards to buy stuff for Uncle Sam may want to take note.

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