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APPROPRIATIONS/FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT - Accountable Officers - Certifying officers - Relief - Illegal/improper payments - Overpayments DIGEST: A State Department Disbursing Officer who approved an overpayment as a result of an omitted decimal point is not relieved of liability where the voucher had been manually altered and the accompanying schedule did not spell out the dollar amount in words as was the usual practice. Certifying that 1089 was to be paid in foreign currency to Paolo Ancora. The 1089 amount was shown on both the "*USE" column United States equivalent. Examined the voucher and incorrectly concluded that the amount payable was one thousand and eighty nine dollars. Ollemi manually inserted what he thought was a missing dollar sign.

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B-233276, Oct 31, 1989, Office of General Counsel

APPROPRIATIONS/FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT - Accountable Officers - Certifying officers - Relief - Illegal/improper payments - Overpayments DIGEST: A State Department Disbursing Officer who approved an overpayment as a result of an omitted decimal point is not relieved of liability where the voucher had been manually altered and the accompanying schedule did not spell out the dollar amount in words as was the usual practice.

Mr. Roger B. Feldman

Comptroller

Department of State

Mr. Feldman:

This responds to your October 12, 1988 request that we grant relief under 31 U.S.C. Sec. 3527(c)(1982) to Alice L. Kirby, the former Acting Disbursing Officer, Rome, Italy, for an improper payment of $1,416,637 Italian lire, a United States dollar equivalent of $1,078.11. On the basis of the present record, summarized below, we deny relief to her.

In October 1987, the Rome Disbursing Office received a voucher from the Bureau of Prisons, Department of Justice, certifying that 1089 was to be paid in foreign currency to Paolo Ancora, an Italian national. The 1089 amount was shown on both the "*USE" column United States equivalent, and the grand total block of the certified schedule. The appropriation summary block of the schedule did not spell out the dollar amount in words. Marcello Ollemi, a disbursing specialist in the Rome office and a Foreign Service national employee, examined the voucher and incorrectly concluded that the amount payable was one thousand and eighty nine dollars. Acting on this conclusion, Mr. Ollemi manually inserted what he thought was a missing dollar sign, decimal point, and two zeros. The voucher then indicated that $1,089.00 was to be paid to Mr. Ancora.

Alice Kirby, the Acting Disbursing Officer, received the voucher certifying $1,089.00 for payment. Ms. Kirby stated that she approved payment of $1,089.00 without knowledge that the schedule had been altered. The Bureau of Prisons subsequently informed the Rome Disbursing Office that the correct amount of the voucher was $10.89, and that there was a overpayment of $1,078.11 to Mr. Ancora. The Disbursing Office and the United States Embassy in Rome made several attempts to obtain reimbursement from Mr. Ancora, which included hiring a legal advisor to pursue collection action.

Under 31 U.S.C. Sec. 3527(c)(1982), this Office has the authority to relieve a disbursing official from liability when the improper payment was not the result of bad faith or lack of reasonable care by the official. In addition, 31 U.S.C. Sec. 3527(c) requires that the agency which made the incorrect payment carry out dilligent collection action.

There is nothing in the record to indicate that either Mr. Ollemi or Ms. Kirby, the disbursing official in this case, acted in bad faith. Also, the requirement for aggressive and timely collection has been met in this case. In 62 Comp.Gen. 476, 479 (1983), we discussed the standard for aggressive and timely collection. The Rome Disbursing Office met that standard when it tried several times, through a legal advisor, to contact the payee. The payee received one collection letter but did not respond to it. He then disappeared, and further attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful. The Embassy determined that locating him and collecting the money from him would not be economically feasible.

The issue here, therefore, is whether Ms. Kirby acted with reasonable care when she approved payment of $1,089.00 to Mr. Ancora. Our Office has held that the reasonable care of a disbursing officer who approves a payment, in this case Ms. Kirby, can be shown by evidence that the individual both complied with established procedures and that nothing occurred which should have made that person suspicious of an error. B-227209, Aug. 5, 1987; B-224689, Oct. 31, 1986. There is nothing in the record concerning the procedures at the Rome Disbursing Office which would govern receipt of a voucher showing a numerical amount without a dollar sign, decimal point or cents. We do not know, therefore, whether Mr. Ollemi followed established procedures when he manually inserted a decimal point and two zeros. Based on the record, however, we think Ms. Kirby should have been suspicious when she received a voucher which had a handwritten insertion of a dollar sign, decimal point and two zeros, which was readily apparent by looking at the voucher, particularly where the summary block of the schedule did not spell out the dollar amount in words. On this later point, the record does indicate that normally schedules include the amount payable in words and both Mr. Ollemi and Ms. Kirby were aware that something was unusual in this case. We have long held that payment of a voucher which has obviously been altered and which is otherwise contrary to regulations or standard procedures is a prime facie case of lack of due care. B-138593, Feb. 18, 1959; B-137723, Dec. 10, 1958. Based on the present record, we cannot conclude that Ms. Kirby acted with reasonable care when she received a voucher for payment which had been manually altered by the disbursing specialist and which did not include the amount payable in words. Accordingly, we must deny relief to her.

If additional information is subsequently provided on the relevant procedures at the Rome Disbursing Office indicating that Ms. Kirby acted with reasonable care, you may request our reconsideration of this matter. However, based on the present record, we must deny relief.

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