MOVE OVER, RECKLESS CONSUMERS. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has outdone your irresponsible spending by racking up a debit card bill so outrageous it could have been created using Mad Libs. Sex-change operations, vacations to the Dominican Republic and wild nights at strip clubs were all bought on the government's dime by both con artists and legitimate victims of Hurricane Katrina. But try to keep that knee from jerking -- although FEMA's oversight was lacking, wasted money is an inevitable byproduct of providing rapid emergency assistance.
The tawdry expenses are listed in a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office. Though the headline makers were select items purchased with debit cards that FEMA gave out immediately after Katrina struck, the centerpiece of the survey was an estimate that about 16% of the agency's more than $6 billion in overall hurricane relief payments were improper and potentially fraudulent. And that figure is probably on the low side because it only accounts for certain categories of fraud, such as misrepresentation of identity and duplicate payments.
Some misuse of the FEMA-issued debit cards, however, is hardly shocking. The aim of the $2,000 cards was to give individuals immediate aid to be spent according to his or her judgment, rather than earmarking items that the government guessed would be of greatest assistance. For every "Girls Gone Wild" video purchased, thousands of families used their cards for clothing, food and temporary shelter without having to deal with federal red tape. Bad spending decisions are an unfortunate side effect of a clever and responsive policy.