Fraud: Government Credit Card Used For Spas, Restaurants

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A Health Canada worker fraudulently charged almost $20,000 worth of personal items to government credit cards, including visits to a spa, meals at restaurants, clothing and cash advances.

An internal report on the fraud also says the worker twice collected charitable donations from trusting co-workers,  but kept all the money.

Auditors concluded the worker should not have been given the credit cards in the first place, partly because there was evidence of personal financial stress.

Even after being explicitly warned against personal use, the employee continued to rack up charges in 60 separate transactions, suggesting lax management controls and follow-up.

In the end, Health Canada had to pay the outstanding balances of $11,210 on the cards and dock the worker's pay in instalments, though there was no payback of the stolen donations whose value was not determined. The person was later fired.

A report on the case, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, provides a rare glimpse into the details of credit-card fraud by public servants, which happened at least 76 times across government in 2014-2015.

Spending spree

The Health Canada worker, whose identity has been deleted from the released report, obtained an American Express travel card in early 2014, even though the job required no travel. Managers were persuaded by the argument that the employee might have to book accommodations for co-workers.

The person was later given a Bank of Montreal travel card, replacing the first card.

And so began a five-month spending spree, with 106 personal purchases and 17 cash advances on the two cards. Every transaction was for personal use.

"Examples of personal use include purchases at restaurants, spa centres, home improvement outlets, and clothing stores, as well as cash withdrawals," the auditors' report says.

"The employee confirmed through an interview that all transactions charged to the Amex and BMO cards were for personal purposes."

At least one cheque bounced

The worker, who claimed not to know the prohibition against personal use, bounced at least one cheque in making a payment to one of the accounts.

Auditors also contacted two charities to determine whether the employee had delivered donations collected from co-workers. One charity said a cheque to them had bounced. No money was ever turned over to the other. The report concludes the worker misappropriated all the cash, though the amount was not determined.

The worker's weekly government pay was docked $450 to eventually pay back the credit-card money, but then the person was fired.

"The employee is required to repay the full funds," said Health Canada spokesperson Sylwia Krzyszton. "Partial payment has been made and the balance continues to be recovered."

Ten cases in 2014-2015

Reminders about the rules were sent to employees holding the 2,400 travel cards issued by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, she said.

Health Canada reported 10 cases of credit-card fraud and abuse in 2014-2015, the latest year for which numbers are available, worth more than $42,000. This case, resolved in May 2015, is not among them.

Across all government, there were 76 such cases in 2014-2015, worth an estimated $180,000. In most cases, at least part of the loss has been recovered.

A spokesman for a charities umbrella group says misappropriation of workplace charitable donations is "quite rare."

"We do not often hear of examples of people who are soliciting friends, family and co-workers and then just keeping the money," Bruce MacDonald, president of Imagine Canada, said from Toronto.

Making workplace-inspired donations online using a credit card is one protection against fraud, he said. And in the case of cash or cheque donations, receiving a "tax receipt is a way to understand whether it has made its way to the charity."

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