(NBC News Washington) -- The federal government has spent at least $20 billion in taxpayer money this year on items and services that it is permitted to keep secret from the public, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
The purchases, known among federal employees as “micropurchases,” are made by some of the thousands of agency employees who are issued taxpayer-funded purchase cards. The purchases, in most cases, remain confidential and are not publicly disclosed by the agencies. A sampling of those purchases, obtained by the I-Team via the Freedom of Information Act, reveals at least one agency used those cards to buy $30,000 in Starbucks Coffee drinks and products in one year without having to disclose or detail the purchases to the public.
A series of other recent purchases, reviewed by internal government auditors, include wasteful and inappropriate purchases by government employees -- including a gym membership and JC Penney clothing -- that were not detected or stopped until after the purchase was completed.
The I-Team’s findings have been the subject of a Congressional hearing and created scrutiny from taxpayer watchdogs for the Department of Homeland Security, which made the Starbucks purchases and declines to publicly detail them.
A “micropurchase” is a purchase costing less than $3,000 in which a government-issued purchase card is swiped. The U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, and Defense, each made tens of millions of dollars of “micropurchases” in the past year, according to an I-Team review. But each agency said it does not make public an itemized list of its transactions, limiting the information to internal government reviewers and users of the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The I-Team, using the Freedom of Information Act, received a list of “micropurchases” made by the Dept. of Homeland Security at Starbucks vendors nationwide in 2013. The list includes dozens of transactions, including in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Several of the purchases were made at an Alameda, California, Starbucks vendor and cost more than $2,400 each, just below the $3,000 threshold for which purchases need not be publicly disclosed. After reviewing the I-Team’s findings, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chair of a U.S House Oversight subcommittee said, “When you have $10,000 being spent at one Starbucks by DHS employees in one city in six months, someone is abusing the purchasing permission that we have given them."