By CATHLEEN PERRY, OSJAOctober 9, 2008
Not many people know that incorrectly using a government travel card means jail time.
The government travel card - "the card" - is a credit card designed to streamline the official travel process.
For most, familiarity with the card comes from having to use it while traveling on government business. The card located in many people's wallet is for use by all U.S. government personnel (civilian and military) to pay for costs incident to 'official' business travel.
"The Travel and Transportation Reform Act of 1998," or TTRA, governs the use of the card. The program is intended to facilitate and standardize the use of a safe, effective, convenient, commercially available method for Department of Defense travelers to pay for expenses incident to official travel, including local travel.
Failure to use the government travel charge card is not a basis for refusing to reimburse the traveler/employee for otherwise appropriate charges. However, failure to use the card may subject the traveler to administrative and/or disciplinary action.
There are several exceptions to this requirement. The exceptions most likely to apply to APG employees are when the employee travels only one or two times a year, if they are a new appointee or if they were previously denied a card.
There are two general rules that govern the use of the card.
First, employees shall satisfy their financial obligations, and second, employees shall use government property only for authorized purposes (5 C.F.R.2635.809 and 5 C.F.R. 2635.704, 31 U.S.C. 1301[a]).
First rule - Paying the bill
As with all credit cards, timely payment is required. This requires promptly submitting a travel voucher. Any charges not paid directly by DFAS to the card company must be paid by the card holder by the date specified on the monthly statement. Failure to make a timely payment will lead to late fees which the card holder (not the government) must pay. Late payments or a failure to pay can cause card issuers to be unwilling to manage DoD's card system. Because of this, late payments or a failure to pay bills when due, can also lead to disciplinary actions against the traveler.
Travelers often ask why they should pay their bill if they haven't yet been paid by the government. This situation should not arise if the travel voucher was submitted in a timely manner.
The requirement states that vouchers should be submitted within five days of travel. DFAS must pay within 30 days of the filing (See TTRA, Section 030801.A). If properly done, travelers should not have to pay before reimbursement. The bottom line is that travelers should submit their travel voucher in a timely manner and make prompt payment of any charges.
But what happens if something beyond traveler's control prevents the timely filing of the voucher, i.e. you've been deployed' There is a provision that provides relief for travelers whose duty prevents them from filing their vouchers or making payment within the prescribed times. To apply, the traveler must be designated as being in mission-critical travel status. The mission critical status must be reflected on the travel order in order for the traveler to be reimbursed for any late charges incurred while in this status. An individual's charge card account must have been placed in mission critical status before the account was suspended. Should there be outstanding bills, the bills shall be settled within 45 days of removal from this status. (TTRA, section 030901.A).
But what about the situation where the voucher was filed within the required five days but DFAS commits an error or doesn't timely make payment' Travelers may be reimbursed for late fees imposed by the bank if the non-payment that incurred the late fee was a result of the government's untimely processing of the travel voucher. Late fees do not incur until 75 days following the billing statement. (TTRA, section 030801.C). Remember that payment of the late fee by the agency will only be done if the delay is the agency's fault. This section is not applicable if the traveler waited 20, 25 or 30 days to submit a voucher and then faced a late payment.
The second major rule regarding use of the card is that it may be used only for authorized purposes. The rules regarding this are confusing to many people, but the key is to use the card only for expenses incident to "official" travel. This can include expenses for local travel such as tolls and parking. It is not proper to pay for lunch with a government credit card while on local travel. If traveling from the Aberdeen Area to the Edgewood Area or vice versa, government credit card holders are not entitled to have lunch paid for by the government. As such, it would not be proper to charge it on the government card. Also, gas costs for the trip should not be placed on the card. There is no clear cut, easily definable way of determining which gas would be used for official business and which for personal use.
Under no circumstances is the card to be used for personal, non-duty expenses. It is not sufficient to promptly pay whatever personal expenses were charged. As an example, it would not be proper to charge lunch or dinner with a spouse (even if they accompany the traveler on TDY) and then pay the bill when it comes. The intentional use of the card for non-approved purchases may be considered an attempt to commit fraud against the U.S. government and may subject the traveler to penalties ranging from disciplinary actions to criminal penalties.
Military members that misuse the card may be subject to courts-martial under UCMJ Article 92 (failure to obey an order or regulation).
An example of the consequences of inappropriate use of the card is a Merit Systems Protection Board case involving an employee of the Veterans Administration. The employee filed an appeal at the MSPB after he was removed for purchasing gasoline for his privately owned vehicle with his government card. During his appeal, the parties entered into a settlement agreement where the employee remained terminated from his position in exchange for the agency not pursuing criminal theft charges against him.
An example involving criminal charges involved a former Department of Veterans Affairs employee who recently pled guilty to one count of theft of government property. The former employee used her government credit card to purchase expensive items, which she then re-sold or kept for herself. The judge sentenced her to five years probation and ordered her to pay $170,000 in restitution.
Finally, in a case involving a military member, there was an investigation which concluded that a senior U.S. Marine improperly used his government credit card by purchasing gas for his personal vehicle, dinners and concert tickets as well as obtaining cash advances-all unrelated to official travel. The Marine was counseled by his supervisor and required to reimburse the government for all unauthorized purchases. He retired soon after the investigation.
The bottom line - use the card for official purposes only and pay the bill promptly when it is received.