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Roughly One Quarter Of Pentagon Purchases Related To COVID-19 Were Illegitimate, Watchdog Finds

An estimated 26% of purchases the Department of Defense (DOD) reported as supporting its COVID-19 response went to unrelated items, according to an Inspector General report released on Thursday.

Former President Donald Trump’s March 2020 memo in response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak gave DOD program officials the ability to increase the limit on government charge cards between $10,000 and $35,000, according to the report. Cardholders used the increased limit to make unrelated purchases on items from shipping to food and sometimes failed to produce receipts or get the required approvals before making a purchase

“It is critically important to track execution and ensure funds are used only for the purpose appropriated, including furnishing evidence to support items bought in support of COVID-19, for audit,” Pentagon guidance issued near the beginning of the pandemic stated, according to the report.

The inspector general randomly sampled 127 purchases from a total of 110,525 made between March 2020 and January 2022 equaling $239 million, all recorded in the Pentagon’s COVID-19 Transaction Report. Of those, 33 did not appear to support the DOD’s COVID-19 response and 45 failed to meet all of the documentation requirements.

If the sample is representative of all 110,535 purchases, up to $53.2 million meant to support the Pentagon’s COVID-19 response might have been used for other purposes, according to the report.

Purchases were completed by each of the military services as well as several civilian-staffed defense organizations.

For example, the Army spent $2,394 to dig up a pipe in the process of determining the cause of a sinkhole, then labeled that purchase as “COVID-19” in the bank’s transaction management system, according to the report. Army officials maintained that the Army did not actually pay for the plumbing services using funds appropriated for the COVID-19 response.

The Air Force spent $4,158 on a Nordic exercise machine and mats, the report shows.

Other purchases were smaller, like $405 for a sit and stand desk for Army personnel, $151.99 for finance training. Cardholders wrote off shipping, food, vehicle maintenance purchases and other miscellaneous purchases.

The charge cards cover minor purchases valued at less than $10,000, according to the inspector general.

“Without adequate oversight, DoD cardholders will continue to incorrectly identify or code GPC purchases as being related to contingency operations, not properly support purchases with required documentation, and have increased risk that fraudulent, improper, and other abusive activity could occur without detection,” the inspector general wrote.

In a response to the report included as an appendix, the Defense Pricing and Contracting, the Pentagon division responsible for policy related contracts and pricing throughout the Department of Defense, agreed with the report’s recommendations and proposed actions to address the shortfall. The agency disagreed that DOD could have saved $53.2 million with purchases that did not fit the definition of supporting the DOD’s COVID-19 response.

“The expenditure of funds were not necessary or reasonable for the intended and reported purpose (DoD’s COVID-19 response),” the inspector general wrote in response, asking the Defense Pricing and Contracting to respond within 30 days.

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