Child support payments using credit cards a new option in Charleston County (copy)

Charleston County will rein in the number of employees who use government charge cards for expenses, a decision that follows reports of fraud and misuse.

County Administrator Jennifer Miller directed the procurement department to trim the number of bank-issued purchase cards over the next 30 days, Shawn Smetana, the county's spokesman, said Tuesday.

He said the county doesn't have a specific reduction target in mind.

"The important thing to do is reduce the number of cards while maintaining efficiency," he said.

The decision comes amid a Jan. 6 report by The Post and Courier that showed Charleston County issued many more cards than other similar-sized agencies in South Carolina. The report identified cases of misuse, ranging from simple mistakes to embezzlement.

Purchase cards, often called p-cards, are similar to consumer credit cards. They allow employees to buy items quickly and with less paperwork. Banks also dole out rebates to agencies to win their business. Because of this, p-card spending now exceeds $300 billion across the nation. Charleston County employees alone spent $11.6 million on p-cards during the last fiscal year. 

The county has about 520 cardholders for roughly 1,830 employees. Earlier this year, the county incorrectly told the newspaper it had 915 cardholders, but that figure included more than 370 cards issued to the Sheriffs Office, which has a separate budget and almost 800 additional employees, Smetana said.

Still, the county's roughly 520 cardholders make it an outlier. In comparison, the Medical University of South Carolina has roughly 5,400 state employees but only 346 cardholders. Richland County has just 97 cardholders. 

The county began issuing bank cards 18 years ago to cut down on paperwork for small purchases. The county also gets small rebates for each purchase, and those rebates add up; last fiscal year, the county received more than $154,000 that went into the general fund.

But lax controls have led to abuse in Charleston County – and across the state.

Public employees elsewhere across the state have been nabbed for using p-cards to buy expensive South American trips, visits to the dentist and car repairs. In late 2017, Charleston County auditors discovered one of its employees had racked up more than $24,000 in personal charges, triggering audits that revealed even more cases of misuse and abuse. 

Internal memos obtained by The Post and Courier showed that auditors flagged employees for using cards to pay for a spouse's trip to a conference, uniforms, car washes and other items prohibited under the county's procurement policies.

Employees also used cards to get hotel, restaurant and other rewards, also violations of county policy.

County department heads will work with procurement heads to winnow the number of cardholders, Smetana said. Officials hope to increase the program's efficiency and reduce the potential for misuse, he said.

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Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme