Nearly 900 Charleston County employees have been issued Bank of America-issued procurement cards, or p-cards -- far more than other comparably sized South Carolina counties and more than many state governments -- which raises the risk of misuse or fraud.

It’s unclear how much government credit card misuse or fraud costs Charleston County taxpayers, partly because there are so many of the cards in circulation – nearly 900 among about 2,500 employees – and partly because oversight is handled at the departmental level.

Both of those issues need to be addressed by County Administrator Jennifer Miller, who’s ultimately responsible for the procurement-card, or p-card, program.

Nearly half of full-time county employees have a Bank of America-issued Visa to use for official business. The benefits are obvious in terms of streamlining purchases, reducing paperwork and staff time. Plus, the county earned $154,569 in cash rebates on about $11.6 million in charges over the past fiscal year.

The idea is to save money on the front end. But there are also back-end costs. Each month, p-card users are required to reconcile charges with a departmental p-card liaison, then a department head has to sign off on the bottom lines – as many as 896 times. And then, there’s misuse, abuse and outright fraud.

Post and Courier reporter Tony Bartelme gave us a look at the tip of what could be an iceberg recently. He detailed several instances of misuse and alleged fraud, including the case of a former p-card liaison who faces embezzlement charges related to nearly $25,000 in questionable charges.

Lesser misuses have included using p-cards for personal expenses, then reimbursing the county, to get rebates, or using p-cards for unauthorized expenses such as buying uniforms or paying for car washes. These problems point to a troubling lack of control and oversight.

But getting a handle on the hidden costs isn’t as easy as getting a year-end statement that shows how much you earned in rebates.

County spokesman Shawn Smetana didn’t have a clear answer on why Charleston County needed so many p-cards. And Ms. Miller and council Chairman Elliott Summey did not return calls seeking more insight.

By comparison, Richland County, with about the same number of employees, has just 97 p-card holders; Berkeley County, 163; and Greenville County, about 300.

In Charleston County, sheriff’s deputies hold the biggest bloc of p-cards, 374. Public Works has 53; facilities management, 47; fleet operations, 42; assessor, 36. Most other departments have 15 or fewer.

To be sure, Charleston County has an exhaustive policy about the use of p-cards that was most recently updated in November to prohibit their use for perks such as office party supplies. It also outlines a points system for infractions that can lead to the suspension or loss of p-card privileges – or prosecution.

But when the Human Resources Department came under scrutiny for some questionable purchases last year, the department head directed his staff to bring any questions about purchases to his p-card liaison, not the administrator in the Contracts and Procurement Department, which is in charge of the overall program, at least nominally.

And as Mr. Bartelme reported, it turned out that the p-card liaison herself was under investigation for some Amazon.com purchases delivered to her home. That suggests a too-cozy inter-departmental relationship.

Since The Post and Courier’s recent story, the number of active p-cards has been trimmed to 896, according to the county.

Misuse of the cards isn’t new. The program was started in 2000, and auditors previously found problems. But the number of cards issued has expanded over the years to a level that demands explanation. 

Perhaps the Contracts and Procurement Department should be signing off on monthly purchases instead of departmental p-card liaisons and department heads.

And on the policy side, County Council should tighten the reins. No doubt there’s a sweet spot in maximizing savings and minimizing misuse, and the county should strive to find it by reducing the number of cards in circulation to the minimum necessary.