Members of Congress asked Friday what’s being done to curb the millions of dollars in gasoline stolen by federal employees wielding government issued credit cards.
Last year, NBC 5 Investigates showed how every year, public employees use their federally-issued credit cards, to buy gasoline for themselves and others.
"I think it's opportunistic," says Robert Erickson, acting Inspector General for the General Services Administration, the agency responsible for the credit cards issued to federal employees.
The government manages a sprawling fleet: some 650,000 vehicles, which cost the taxpayers over $4.4 billion per year. Roughly $400 million is spent annually on fuel, and about 590,000 cards are in circulation.
At Friday’s hearing of the House Oversight Committee, chairman John Mica, (R) Florida, pointedly questioned a system which seems to have safeguards which are, at best, ineffective.
“We found people having federal charge cards for fuel, using them for hundreds of other transactions,” he said. “We had instances in which more fuel was purchased than the capacity of the tank!”
And the numbers can add up quickly.
Records indicate that between the years of 2010 through 2014, government employees, contractors, and others, looted some $2.4 million in gasoline on government cards – buying gas for themselves, topping off friends’ cars, or in some cases, even storing gasoline for later use.
"They'll start to arrange with people a time and place," says Stuart Berman, who heads up the GSA Inspector General's office in Chicago. "They'll usually do this at a gas station, and they'll line up several people."
The case files are loaded with employees who not only filled their own tanks but sold gasoline to others, often at drastic discounts.
"Sometimes charging $25 for a fuel-up," says Berman. “Sometimes 50 cents on the dollar."
Berman said gas thieves often start small, buying a tankful of gas for their own car. After that, he says, they may simply think that no one has noticed.
"And then, they become emboldened," he says. "And it's off to the races, and that's when they start lining up 10 or 15 cars."
In one case uncovered by Chicago investigators, three individuals who gained access to an Amtrak credit card were suspected of racking up $35,000 to $40,000 in fraudulent purchases. The three – Toni McCaley, Sorea Appling, and Jermaine Hicks – eventually pled to lesser charges. Prosecutors were only able to charge them with what was documented on surveillance video.
Hicks pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and was sentenced to 65 days of time served. McCaley and Appling received a sentence of Felony probation for 18 months.
“We are trying to drill into what’s taking place, how we can fix it, and how we can place restrictions,” Mica said. “Use of a federal credit card for anything else in an abusive manner has to be stopped.”
As NBC 5 reported last March, the good news for taxpayers is that thieves are being caught. But the GSA chases the crimes with only a handful of investigators, about 70 to investigate all types of fraud nationwide.