Postal workers may be famous for delivering that check in the mail. But they apparently are also good at grabbing cash advances off their official credit cards to satisfy their personal hunger.
An investigation by the Postal Service’s internal watchdog identified hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses that workers charged to their official travel cards.
Among the most common improper purchases were cash advances for groceries or restaurant meals unrelated to travel, or charges that far exceeded their travel food allowances.
“These cash advances were unrelated to official travel, exceeded the amount Postal Service policy allows or occurred too early for travel,” the Postal Service inspector general said in a report that highlighted the waste and fraud.
Such misspent funds come at the expense of Americans, who pony up money for stamps and mailed packages and whose mailing costs have skyrocketed in recent years. The cost of a first-class postage stamp has risen 10 cents in the past decade. The service also is facing multibillion-dollar operating losses that have raised concerns of a taxpayer bailout.
The inspector general’s office said it is difficult to identify some of the exact expenditures because accurate records aren’t always kept and the Postal Service often doesn’t check its own employees’ use of the cards. In fact, the two major Postal Service offices in Washington reviewed hardly any of their employees’ card filings.
For allowing a laissez faire culture that enabled workers to misuse their travel cards, the Postal Service wins this week’s Golden Hammer award highlighting examples of wasteful spending that hurts everyday Americans.
Postal Service managers say they are concerned by the investigative findings and promise to tighten controls on the debit cards. The service “will develop standard operating procedures for travel card coordinators to follow to effectively monitor travel card activity on a monthly basis,” it said.
Investigators sampled just a portion of the overall travel card cash advances and found plenty of red flags, including $4,000 in grocery shopping sprees, $5,000 in restaurant meals that weren’t work-related, $7,500 in travel meals that exceeded spending limits, more than $7,000 for charities and social organizations unrelated to work and $11,000 on other flagged expenditures.
An additional $300,000 in expenses were flagged as suspicious, but their exact nature couldn’t be determined because accurate records weren’t always kept.
The early finding may be only the tip of the iceberg. Investigators have yet to check nearly $12 million in other credit card transactions.
Employees are supposed to repay any charges they make with the cards, investigators said, but noted that poor oversight raises the risk of defaults and delinquencies.
The inspector general has referred several cases to the investigations office, which gets involved in reviews of fraud and misconduct that usually end in firings or criminal and civil prosecution.
One solution is in place. The agency has eliminated the use of travel cards for cash advances by officers, senior executives and the Postal Inspection Service, the inspector general said.
To put it into perspective, the vast majority of purchases — just over $32 million — were spent on exactly what employees were supposed to be buying by paying for travel fees and related costs.
But the biggest problem was in the Washington area, at the Postal Inspection Service and Postal Service Headquarters.
Investigators determined that officials at those two offices weren’t reviewing nearly 97 percent of all card transactions, meaning a lot of waste could have slipped through the cracks. Of the 910 card purchases the inspector general double-checked, USPS officials had not reviewed 882 of them totaling $134,000.
“Effective monitoring of travel card transactions, including cash advances and purchases, reduces the risk of credit card delinquencies or negative publicity when employees misuse their travel cards,” the inspector general said.
Prepaid purchase cards have been identified before as a vulnerability in government spending, as poor oversight means employees’ purchases aren’t often reviewed.
In May, the Labor Department’s Job Corps won the Golden Hammer for the same issue: prepaid travel cards that were used instead to pay for cellphone bills, trips to the hair salons, clothing, electronics and other personal expenses.
“Debit card abuse is unfortunately not an unusual event in the federal government,” Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, told The Washington Times in May.
“The problem is always caused by the same lack of internal controls,” he said.