DHS employees living large at taxpayer expense

By LARA JAKES JORDAN

Wielding government-issued credit cards, Homeland Security employees racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unjustified expenses last year, including booties for rescue dogs, iPods, designer rain jackets and beer-making equipment, a congressional audit shows.

More than 100 laptop computers and a dozen boats also bought by Homeland Security Department employees are missing, the investigators found.

Poor training, lax oversight and rampant confusion over what employees are allowed to buy with government-issued credit cards left Homeland Security "vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse," according to a Government Accountability Office draft report.

The report was to be released Wednesday by a Senate panel that oversees the department.

Senators said more than 10,000 Homeland Security employees carry credit cards for business-related expenses — with a spending limit that was raised to $250,000 for emergencies after Hurricane Katrina hit last Aug. 29. Aides said the audit covered expenses during a five-month period before and after the storm.

But the investigators found that employees received scant training on how to use the cards, were under lax supervision and were told to follow spending guidelines that differed among the 22 agencies that make up the department.

The department spent $435 million with the purchase cards in the 2005 budget year, compared to $296 million in 2004, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Tuesday evening. But he said only a fraction of the 1.1 million purchases were improper, noting that the department has disciplined about 70 employees.

"Comparatively, we’re talking about a small number of bad apples," Knocke said.

Among the expenses investigators described as abusive or questionable:

  • More than 2,000 sets of dog booties, costing $68,442, that have sat unused in storage since emergency responders decided they were not suited for canines assisting in Gulf Coast recovery efforts.
  • Three portable shower units for $71,170 from a contractor who investigators said overcharged the government. Customs and Border Protection agents could have gotten similar showers for nearly a third of the price — and faster.
  • 12 Apple iPod Nanos and 42 iPod Shuffles, priced at $7,000, for Secret Service "training and data storage." Because the Shuffles cost less than $300, the Secret Service said they were not required to track them to ensure they were used properly.
  • 37 black Helly Hansen designer rain jackets, costing nearly $2,500, for use in a firing range that the Customs and Border Protection purchaser later acknowledged shuts down when it’s raining.
  • Conference and hotel rooms at a golf and tennis resort at St. Simons Island in Georgia, worth $2,395, for training 32 newly hired attorneys when they could have used a nearby federal law enforcement training center.
  • A beer brewing kit and ingredients for more than $1,000 for a Coast Guard official to brew alcohol while on duty as a social organizer for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. "The estimated price for a six-pack of USCG beer was $12," the investigators noted, adding: "Given that the six-pack cost of most beers is far less than $12, it is difficult to demonstrate that the Academy is achieving cost savings by brewing its own beer."

Investigators also noted that Customs and Border Protection wasted up to $464,586 by buying meals-ready-to-eat over the Internet instead of contracting through the Pentagon, as is standard procedure. And they found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot locate 107 laptops, 22 printers and two GPS units worth $170,000. FEMA also cannot find 12 of 20 boats the agency bought for $208,000.

Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, said the department will begin enforcing new spending guidelines in the next several weeks that should eliminate much of the confusion and make sure purchases are strictly supervised. Violators could have their cards taken away, be forced to repay expenses and face disciplinary action, he said.

"We take very seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Knocke said.

The senators who ordered the investigation — Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. — described Homeland Security as negligent in controlling the shopaholics in its ranks. The two lead the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Homeland Security "left the door wide open for these abuses," Collins said.

Added Lieberman: "That is hard to believe."

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On the Net:

Government Accountability Office: http://www.gao.gov/index.html

Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee: http://hsgac.senate.gov/

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press

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