Congressional investigators have discovered almost $3 million in "improper, wasteful, and questionable purchases" by U.S. Forest Service employees. More than $1.5 million of those purchases — made with government "purchase cards" — were in violation of laws or federal policy, investigators say.
Much of the illicit spending was done in the name of a beloved American cartoon character — Smokey Bear. But Smokey's name may have been misused.
An audit released today by the General Accounting Office cites the Forest Service for what it called "improper, wasteful, and questionable purchases," including:
$4,843 in premium cable TV channels for forest rangers, including at least one pay-per-view pornographic movie;
$1,031 in jewelry from the exclusive Meier & Frank department store in Salt Lake City; the items were fraudulently expensed as fictitious employee awards;
$2,295 for a bunkhouse pool table;
$12,250 for two elaborate fish costumes and a salmon tent, used for a program supposed to promote Smokey Bear.
Combined with numerous other items, the questionable expenses come to a total of $2.7 million.
"Currently, we believe that the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse in the [Forest Service's purchase card] program is unacceptably high," the GAO report said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman — whose department oversees the Forest Service — she is accountable.
"There tends to be an attitude that it is the government's money," he said. "There isn't anything like 'the government's money'; it's all taxpayer money."
Grassley says the Forest Service needs better financial controls.
‘Carefree About Taxpayers’ Dollars’
This is not the first time this has come up; since 1999, the GAO has designated the agency's money management "high risk."
The Forest Service issued a statement acknowledging past "questionable purchases," but said "better program controls" have been implemented.
But that's not enough for Grassley.
"That you would have government employees — that ought to be the most trusted people in all the world — that are carefree about taxpayers' dollars, using government purchase cards to buy pool tables … I don't like it, and it does bother me," he said.
There is reason to be bothered. Some 400,000 government employees have purchase cards, and those employees charged $14 billion in 2001 alone.
Forest Service employees are not the only ones whose purchases have been questioned. In July 2002 it was discovered that Army personnel had used similar purchase cards to buy $38,000 worth of lap dances and other adult entertainment at various strip clubs near military bases.