Federal Employment Attorney Jonathan Bell on Federal News Radio

Video Transcript

Newscaster:  For any government employee who makes illegal purchases on a government-issued credit card, agencies have until the end of this month to firm up their internal controls and prove they’ll take a tougher stance on credit card abuse.  So what should the holders of credit cards know?  Jonathan Bell is a Federal employee attorney.  He’s got some answers.

Mr. Bell, good morning.  Thanks for joining us.

Attorney Jonathan Bell:  Good morning.  How are you doing?

Male Newscaster:  Tell us why should more energy be put into training these employees on proper use as opposed to just simple punishment?

Atty. Bell:  Well, the stats that I reviewed is that government workers rack up about $20 billion in credit card charges and there really hasn’t been much accountability as far as  fraud, illegal, improper use, or erroneous use.  I figure it’s a good idea for the agencies to keep the eyes on Federal employees who potentially abuse government credit cards.

Female Newscaster:  I just want to back up for a minute.  The Office of Management and Budget, they did say that now agencies should fire these employees who make the illegal, improper, or erroneous purchases with government cards.  Couldn’t they do that in the first place?  Couldn’t agencies—if they found somebody who had a habit, at least, of doing this type of purchase—fire them?

Atty. Bell:  They can, and they have in the past.  I’ve seen those cases in the past.  The key, really, is there shouldn’t just be a no-tolerance, “go directly to termination.”  You have to look at the facts.  You have to determine if it was really erroneous as opposed to intentional, illegal, or improper use.  Really, I’d like to see more focus on the training.  If they’re giving the credit cards and they’re giving that power and authority, oftentimes I find that they really weren’t properly trained on proper use of the credit card.

Male Newscaster:  Are there different types of cards—that is, some are used for travel; some are used for small threshold purchases?  Does one card cover all of those things, or are there different classes?

Atty. Bell:  I’m pretty sure it varies by agency, but some Federal employees are given a credit card and they use it month to month for all types of charges and they’re supposed to get the approvals of the **** [00:02:13] and then pay for it.  There really hasn’t been much accountability before recent.

Female Newscaster:  We’re speaking with Federal employment attorney, Jonathan Bell.

Regarding the training that you’re advocating, if I can just play devil’s advocate, I think a reasonable person would know don’t use this charge card to buy books on Amazon or to purchase your Christmas vacation.  So what sort of training do you advocate?

Atty. Bell:  Well those are the obvious things, but sometimes there might be books that they feel might be helpful to their job, which they haven’t gotten approval for.  Or sometimes there might be lunches with contractors or other individuals that may be related to the job.  There is a certain gray area that has to be more clearly defined.

Also, they have to do these audits equally.  In the past, I’ve seen sometimes they just look at the employees that they deem as troublemakers and put them under unnecessary scrutiny.  They should really be doing this stuff across the board so no one’s treated differently.

Male Newscaster:  When it comes to credit card use, is this something that’s more related to when they’re out of the office, or things they’re doing within the office under standard types of procurement operations?  Do we have those metrics?

Atty. Bell:  I’ve seen all types of abuse in all types of different situations, but a lot of it is done outside of the office.

Male Newscaster:  For example, sometimes you hear about the egregious examples—people going to gentleman’s clubs or that kind of thing—but there’s a big gray area when you’re out of the office too, isn’t there?

Atty. Bell:  Yes.  There’s a huge gray area.  That’s why it has to be defined and that’s why there has to be proper training.  There has to be more than just a zero-tolerance.  If someone has 20, 25 years in Federal government then they make a mistake for whatever reason, you have to continue to look to mitigating factors.  They gave the agencies discretion.  There hasn’t been any type of set standard as to what to do within each agency, so it’s up to the HR people to develop these rules.  I hope they don’t do zero-tolerance because, again, everyone makes a mistake, especially after a long career, and it shouldn’t automatically end your career.

Female Newscaster:  What you’re advocating for sounds like almost “sentencing guidelines” for people who misuse credit cards.

Atty. Bell:  Yes, I think it should be a case-by-case basis.  Even if someone does find misuse, as long as it’s not illegal or completely egregious, there should be mitigating factors still considered, in my opinion.

Male Newscaster:  And in many cases, the employees can pay the government back.  That’s always part of whatever adjudication occurs also, correct?

Atty. Bell:  Yes, and that should be part of it.  They are starting to run credit checks on the employees, which I think is a good idea.  They’re forcing agencies to maintain records.  Again, I think it’s a good idea.  But really, the training is key.  You don’t want to do something where you’re just trying to catch employees in misconduct; you want to make sure you have the proper training on the proper use.

Female Newscaster:  And for employees, would you recommend that whatever the purchase they make, they always check with their supervisor first?  In other words, there is no “safe” purchase to make without permission?

Atty. Bell:  I think that’s a wise idea.  Some things are obvious and some people have been in the government long enough to know what a correct purchase is, but for those items that are questionable, I think it’s a good idea not only to actually supervise it, but to get it email, get it in writing, so you know you’re completely covered.

Male Newscaster:  What about those internal controls that the Office of Management and Budget is being asked to develop?  What might those look like, in addition to controls they have in place already?

Atty. Bell:  Again, if they’re required to send reports of misuse two times a year involving what types of misuse, the money involved, and the disciplinary actions taken, I think it’s a good idea to show some types of consistency with the penalties between the agencies.  I just think that there should be more guidelines regarding what the consistency and penalties should be instead of leaving it agency by agency, because that could vary.

Female Newscaster:  Jonathan Bell is a Federal employment attorney.  Thanks so much for joining us.

Atty. Bell:  Thanks a lot for having me; I really appreciate it.