Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Report: Millions Blown On Government Cards

Your tax dollars at work:

Federal employees charged millions of dollars for Internet dating, tailor-made suits, lingerie, lavish dinners and other questionable expenses to their government credit cards over a 15-month period, congressional auditors say.

A report by the Government Accountability Office, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, examined spending controls across the federal government following reports of credit-card abuse at departments including Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

The review of card spending at more than a dozen departments from 2005 to 2006 found that nearly 41 percent of roughly $14 billion in credit-card purchases, whether legitimate or questionable, did not follow procedure - either because they were not properly authorized or they had not been signed for by an independent third party as called for in federal rules to deter fraud.

For purchases over $2,500, nearly half - or 48 percent - were unauthorized or improperly received.

Out of a sample of purchases totaling $2.7 million, the government could not account for hundreds of laptop computers, iPods and digital cameras worth more than $1.8 million. In one case, the U.S. Army could not say what happened to computer items making up 16 server configurations, each of which cost nearly $100,000.

Agencies often could not provide the required paperwork to justify questionable purchases. Investigators also found that federal employees sometimes double-billed or improperly expensed lavish meals and Internet dating for many months without question from supervisors; the charges were often noticed only after auditors or whistle-blowers raised questions.

"Breakdowns in internal controls over the use of purchase cards leave the government highly vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse," investigators wrote, calling the governmentwide failure rate in enforcing controls "unacceptably high."

"This audit demonstrates that continued vigilance over purchase card use is necessary," the 57-page report stated.

The report calls for the General Services Administration and Office of Management and Budget, both of which help administer the government's credit-card program, to set guidance to improve accounting for purchased items, particularly Palm Pilots, iPods and other electronic equipment that could be easily stolen.

OMB and GSA were also urged to tighten controls over convenience checks, which are a part of the credit-card program, and to remind federal employees that they will be held responsible for any items if the purchases are later deemed improper.

In response, both OMB and GSA agreed with portions of the report. But GSA administrator Lurita Doan noted the vast majority of federal employees use their cards properly and that many oversight measures already are in place. She acknowledged there is room for improvement but added that by using purchase cards the federal government saves about $1.8 billion in administrative costs each year.

"We agree that no level of abuse or misuse is acceptable," Doan wrote.

The GAO study comes amid increasing scrutiny of purchase cards, which are used by 300,000 federal employees and are directly payable by the U.S. government.

The AP reported Sunday that VA employees last year racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in government credit-card bills at casino and luxury hotels, movie theaters and high-end retailers such as Sharper Image. Government auditors have been investigating these and similar charges, citing past spending abuses.

Stop the Olympic Torch in San Francisco Today

The torch comes to America and San Francisco will represent America and continue the world-wide opposition to the Chinese repression of Tibetans:

Authorities in San Francisco are bracing for anti-China protests Wednesday as the western U.S. city hosts the latest leg of the Olympic torch's world relay.

San Francisco officials say hundreds of police will patrol the 10-kilometer route of the torch relay in anticipation of demonstrations by thousands of protesters. Officials say they may change the relay's route at the last minute for security reasons.

U.S. authorities hope to avoid a repeat of chaotic scenes in Paris and London in recent days in which anti-China activists disrupted the torch relay.

The Olympic torch arrived in San Francisco early Tuesday and was kept at a secret location until the start of Wednesday's relay. One runner who planned to carry the torch has dropped out.

Meanwhile, in Tibet, the crackdown continues unabated:
Chinese police have detained 953 people suspected of involvement in riots in Tibet last month, the head of the Himalayan region said on Wednesday but added that they were a minority who did not represent the Tibetan people.

Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, told a news conference in Beijing that prosecutors had also issued arrest warrants for 403 of those detained, a step that generally leads to formal prosecution.

But he added the rioters were only "an extremely tiny minority" of Tibetans and the monks who took part in protests were also "an extremely tiny minority" of the Buddhist clergy.

The Chinese authorites have even brought along bodyguards for the torch:
China’s blue-clad flame attendants, whose aggressive methods of safeguarding the Olympic torch have provoked international outcry, are paramilitary police from a force spun off from the country’s army.

The squad of 30 young men from the police academy that turns out the cream of the paramilitary security force has the job at home of ensuring riot control, domestic stability and the protection of diplomats.

Questions are now being asked as to who authorised their presence as the torch was carried through London. The Conservatives demanded clarification from the Government last night.

The guards’ task for the torch relay is to ensure the flame is never extinguished – although it was put out three times in Paris – and now increasingly to prevent protesters demonstrating against Chinese rule in Tibet from interfering with it.

But the aggression with which the guards have been pursuing their brief has provoked anger, not least in London where they were seen wrestling protesters to the ground and were described as “thugs” by Lord Coe.

The Olympic medallist and organiser of the 2012 Games was overheard saying that the officials had pushed him around as the torch made its way through the capital on Sunday. He added that other countries on the route should “get rid of those guys”.

“They tried to punch me out of the way three times. They are horrible. They did not speak English . . . I think they were thugs.”

His comments came after Konnie Huq, the former Blue Peter presenter, who was one of the torchbearers on Sunday, described how she had seen the officials in “skirmishes” with the police.

Ms Huq, who was carrying the torch when a pro-Tibet activist tried to snatch the flame, said of the guards: “They were very robotic, full-on . . . They were barking orders like ‘run’ and ‘stop’ and I was like, ‘Who are these people?’.”

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