BLM Employees Charged Taxpayers $799,000 for 'Gift Cards'

By Joseph Perticone | October 3, 2014 | 3:09 PM EDT

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(CNSNews.com) --  Wildfire management employees at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) used government charge cards to buy $799,000 worth of gift cards from vendors such as REI, American Express, FredMeyer and Visa, according to a report released Sept. 30 by the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

When investigators requested supporting documentation such as purchase orders, receipts, and authorizing signatures, BLM staff claimed that they were “missing,” according to the report.

The inspector general describes widespread misuse of government-issued charge cards at the agency, making the “purchase card program susceptible to fraud, waste, and abuse.”

In 2010, BLM conducted an agency-wide audit of the purchase card program. Auditors traced $70,000 of the undocumented purchases to the Idaho State Office, where one employee was found to have purchased personal items and gift cards totalling  $41,276.33.

In May 2011, the investigation resulted in the suspension of BLM employee Maria Gilbert’s government credit card.  On Sept. 13, 2013 Gilbert was charged with one count of theft of government funds between 2007 and 2011, to which she pleaded guilty.

Two months later, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon sentenced Gilbert to two years of probation and six months of home detention for embezzling funds from the BLM’s Salem District Office. She was also ordered to pay full restitution totaling $41,276.33.

However, the remaining $757,723.67 of undocumented gift card purchases was not accounted for in the IG report.

In addition, the Carson City District in Nevada was unable to provide the investigators with timesheets, crew time reports, or firefighter time reports for a series of fires in 2010. The report described these inadequacies as making it “impossible to verify the accuracy of most payroll charges.”

It was also discovered that at least one employee in the BLM’s Southern Nevada District charged time to a fire nearly nine months after the blaze had been put out. In another incident, $3,200 of janitorial services was charged by Carson City District employees to “fire suppression” of several different fires that occurred in another state.

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The BLM demonstrated “grossly inadequate” payroll controls, “weak internal controls over purchase cards, and poor compliance with Federal policy,” the inspector general concluded.

Inspectors also found problems with BLM's fire codes. Every BLM employee charges expenses to a unique fire code associated with a specific wildfire.

But the IG report found that “internal controls related to how BLM associates costs with specific fires were inadequate to ensure that money was spent according to its allocated purpose.”

This lack of internal controls resulted in 26 individuals charging their time to one tree fire in the Carson City District. The overstatement of fire-fighting costs approached 95 percent, the IG report noted.

In response to the IG’s findings, BLM released a “desk reference” entitled Standards for Fire Business Management, referred to as the “Orange Book," which directs employees on standards and ethics for fire-related business.  BLM says it will also “review progress on charge card controls in accordance to the Integrated Charge Card Manual (BLM 1512).”

BLM Director Neil Kornze acknowledges that the “Orange Book” will not solve all of the problems plaguing the BLM, but says it does represent “measurable progress.” The agency is currently considering more plans to tighten up its accounting procedures, which it plans to implement by January 2016.