The revelation that the federal government’s travel card program was out of control came as no particular surprise to POGO. After all, we have been concerned with the government’s purchase card program for years. A lack of oversight has allowed numerous nefarious purchases at taxpayer expense – beer kits, sports tickets, Victoria's Secret merchandise, jewelry, cell phones, tires, escort services, and in one instance, the purchased breast enhancement surgery.

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report [pdf here] which POGO obtained provides clear evidence that systemic weaknesses and mismanagement in federal travel card spending is costing government and taxpayers “million of dollars annually.”

One particularly outrageous example cited by CRS is the Department of Defense with $100 million in unused tickets from 1997 to 2003 that had not been process for refunds. Government management of the program is also so poor that delinquent payment of bills is causing Uncle Sam to lose millions of dollars in rebates and negate the government’s buying power.

As we are accustomed to seeing, the CRS report also highlight the bogus charges for laser eye surgery, false reimbursement of nearly $10,000 in plane tickets an official didn’t actually purchase, a first-class trip to Hawaii, and numerous upgrades to premium-class accommodations.

So, why are the clear rules and regulations governing such criminal acts not being enforced? There are no clear answers. The actual amount of fraudulent, improper, and abusive or questionable travel card transactions is unknown because of “the lack of current, comprehensive information on program weaknesses.” That lack of information is disturbing considering that travel cards spending increased from $4.39 million in FY 1999 to $8.28 million in FY 2008.

This is not Monopoly money, folks. The nation is struggling to stabilize its economy and ensure its financial viability. Moreover, government agencies are working with less and trying to do more.

POGO is calling for immediate improvements, including improved oversight of all credit card transactions, increased penalties for misuse, and enhanced processes to take full advantage of the benefits that travel cards were expected to bring. We are hopeful that the legislation pending in the Senate (S. 942) and House (H.R. 2189) will add taxpayer protections for the government credit card system. It is unfortunate, however, that agencies can’t mind the store and Congress is placed in the position to mandate corrective actions.