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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:
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."
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