The state has been too cavalier in overseeing the use of its credit cards, and has paid a price.

The so-called “P-Card” is a convenience, but state officials should take steps to ensure that the “P” doesn’t stand for profligacy.

An audit of South Carolina’s procurement card program showed employees have used them for purchases that violate state policy, for their personal use and for items that exceed the state’s $2,500 limit.

Further, the program has not been not adequately monitored, some purchases were not documented, and cards were stolen and used for fraudulent purchases.

And information about employees found guilty of misusing procurement cards was not posted publicly to serve as a deterrent to other improper purchases.

When state agency officials issue P-Cards to employees, they should use the same care and demand the kind of high standards they would likely set if the funds were coming out of their own wallets instead of state coffers.

One area of particular concern to the Legislative Audit Council, which was asked by the state Legislature to conduct the review, was gift cards. Some employees have continued to use their P-Cards to purchase gift cards even after the state Budget and Control Board in 2010 prohibited it.

The gift cards have been used to pay for items or services from establishments that do not accept the state’s P-Card.

Unfortunately, some of those items or services were not allowable under state policy.

One USC Upstate employee purchased 20 gift cards totaling $5,300 between December 2007 and May 2010. Some were given directly to cover purchases, some were cashed and used for small disbursements, and $100 was kept for services he had rendered. He also gave his wife a $150 gift card in appreciation for her work with a student organization.

Clemson University has used the P-Card for gift cards for athletes. SLED used them for hotel rooms, rental cars and rental trucks, none of which is allowed.

S.C. State University used them 17 times for a total of more than $4,000 to pay for meals at an Orangeburg restaurant. Three “official dinner” expenses were not documented to indicate who attended.

Communication and training on the use of P-Cards has clearly been lacking. Agencies were not aware of changes in state policy. Employees were not up to speed on what can and cannot be purchased with P-Cards. And agencies failed to report to the Comptroller General’s Office when they changed their procedures.

State policy prohibits issuing more than one P-Card to a single cardholder. Winthrop University assigned eight cards to one employee, one for each of eight sports.

A USC Upstate coach bought airline tickets for his wife and daughter to watch a tournament in Alaska where he was coaching.

More than a third of the 90 state agencies using the procurement card as of April 2009 had disciplined employees for using cards improperly; 37 percent had cards lost or stolen; and 43 percent had employees reimburse them because of personal use. Two Citadel employees were criminally prosecuted, the LAC reported.

Still, the P-Card plan is worth the effort of addressing oversight problems and tightening implementation of rules. The state and purchasing agencies receive rebates for using P-Cards. Last year, the total was $4.5 million. Indeed, expanding the use of P-Cards could bring in additional money and reduce labor-intensive purchase orders.

More than 10,000 cards have been issued at 93 state agencies. From Aug. 1, 2008 through July 31, 2009, purchases exceeded $163 million.

Every agency should be required to demonstrate as soon as possible to the state that it has addressed its shortcomings with P-Cards.

The audit findings are clear, and they demand greater accountability.