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Casinos, cruises and Costco: How federal workers abuse their travel credit cards

Recent $40,000 shopping spree by DOT employee who never went on official travel mirrors years of similar abuses seen government-wide.

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U.S. dollar notes
U.S. dollar notes
(Jung Yeon-Je / Getty Images)
Updated: December 25, 2020 - 11:04pm

A U.S. Transportation Department employee went on a recent $2,500 shopping spree, using a government credit card reserved for official travel to buy items at a local Costco and other stores and restaurants.

Remarkably, the transactions initially went undetected even though they occurred at stores near the worker's home, not on travel, and while the worker was on vacation.

The DOT's internal watchdog, the inspector general, told the story of the shopping spree in an investigative report earlier this month.

"The Federal Travel Regulation states that travelers may not use travel cards for personal reasons while on official travel," the report said. "Contrary to this regulation, we found that a TCH (Travel Card Holder) made an unauthorized $217 purchase at a Costco warehouse located near their residence.

"We also reviewed this TCH's transactions in the universe and identified $2,351 in additional unauthorized purchases at restaurants and grocery stores that were located in close proximity to the TCH's residence. These purchases occurred before the TCH's authorized trip and while they were on break."

The episode was hardly isolated. The IG estimated nearly 10% of all charges made on DOT employees' travel credit cards were improper.

"We found that TCHs did not follow prescribed policies and procedures for an estimated $18.6 million in purchases of a universe totaling $193.6 million,” the report concluded.

While the shopping spree by the vacationing employee was shocking, it wasn't even the worst example uncovered by the DOT inspector general investigators.

Another employee ran up about $40,000 in charges on a government credit card — including for a cruise — without ever traveling for official business.

"We found a TCH without authorized official travel who made personal purchases on their travel card. These purchases — totaling approximately $40,000 — included payments for cruises, for airline tickets, to a utility company, and at a supermarket in close proximity to the TCH's residence," the report lamented.

The IG cited widespread weaknesses in the Transportation Department's oversight of travel cards, including an inability to monitor charges near employees' homes or to flag expenses that did not occur around the time of official trips.

"DOT's controls are not sufficient to prevent or detect inappropriate use of travel cards," the report concluded. "… We identified internal control weaknesses in multiple areas within DOT's travel card program."

Remarkably, many of the problems that surfaced in the December report were first flagged in a 2014 audit of the same travel card program. "Excessive or unauthorized cash advances and instances of travel card misuse are going undetected because DOT lacks robust internal controls to prevent these transactions," that report noted.

DOT officials said they are dedicated to fixing the problems and are working on 11 improvements recommended by the IG.

But if taxpayers feel like they are trapped in a bad version of the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," there is good reason.

For more than a decade, egregious examples of travel card abuse have surfaced in agencies across the federal government.

For instance, Bureau of Land Management employees ran up huge credit card bills buying gift cards for themselves between 2005 and 2012. One was convicted of buying more than $40,000 in gifts for herself alone.

Not to be outdone, Pentagon employees got away with spending more than $100,000 at strip clubs and more than $1 million at casinos using their travel cards, according to a 2015 report.

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