The criminals vary in their methods:
It's a perk of federal employment: a free monthly subsidy that pays for commutes on public transportation. But scores of workers have been taking the government for a ride, selling their benefits on the Internet and pocketing millions in cash each year.
The program, which covers 300,000 federal employees nationwide, has been abused by workers across a variety of agencies, the Government Accountability Office will report to Congress today. Workers in the Washington region alone have defrauded the government of at least $17 million a year, with the actual figure probably several million dollars higher, according to the GAO.
Senator Coleman highlights the failure of the bureaucracy to recognize criminal activity:
Workers have been accepting the transit subsidies but driving to work, or claiming a subsidy far greater than their commuting costs and selling the excess, GAO investigators found. For example, one employee at the Department of Transportation claimed the maximum benefit of $105 per month, but his commute cost $54.
A Northern Virginia man who works for the Transportation Department and has been receiving the maximum transit subsidy since 2004, even though he often "slugs" to work -- jumping into the impromptu carpools on I-95/395 lanes -- gets a ride with a neighbor or rides his motorcycle. He sold his unused Metrocheks, worth $1,080, on eBay. He told investigators he did not know it was illegal, despite a warning on the cards.
Both members of a married couple working at the Defense Department received transit subsidies but drove to work together. The husband told investigators he sold 61 lots of Metrocheks, worth $6,000, on eBay. The wife denied selling hers and said she used her subsidy for personal travel -- a violation of the program -- but both spouses' names appeared on the eBay accounts.
A worker at the Commerce Department left her job in 2001 but received benefits until 2006, when she changed addresses and the agency caught the mistake. By that time, she had sold Metrocheks worth $4,000, according to the GAO.
The Coast Guard gave transit subsidies to one man who apparently did not work for the agency; no employment records could be located for him, the GAO found. The Treasury Department gave Metrocheks to 25 people who never worked at that agency, according to the GAO.
Sales have been brisk despite a warning on the back of the Metrocheks that says they are not transferable, and a pledge signed by workers that says they will use the cards only to cover their commuting costs...
With the transit program costing some $250 million annually, identified fraud consumes almost 7% of the budget.
"The internal controls on this particular program are grossly inadequate, and no one agency is responsible for overseeing or managing the program -- that is a recipe for disaster," said Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.), the panel's ranking Republican, who initiated the investigation. "It's not a case of someone being asleep at the switch; it's a case of no one being at the switch at all."
Coleman said the idea behind the program -- to reduce traffic congestion and pollution by getting federal workers to use public transportation -- remains worthwhile.
But he said basic controls should be enacted: Employment should be confirmed before someone is enrolled in the program; workers should not get parking spaces and transit benefits at the same time; agencies should verify employees' commuting expenses; and when an employee leaves an agency, the administrator of transit benefits should be notified.
"Most importantly, there should be greater clarity on precisely which agency or agencies are responsible for running this operation," Coleman said. And, he said, workers caught selling their Metrocheks should be punished.
Senator Coleman is right, these workers should be punished. They should be fired from their jobs, barred from future employment, and prosecuted to the full extent possible.