By John Seigenthaler Anchor, "Weekend Nightly News"
NBC News
updated 8/30/2004 7:40:06 PM ET 2004-08-30T23:40:06

Americans have always loved their cars. They love to watch them go fast, but what they really love about cars is getting a good deal on one.

That's not necessarily so for Uncle Sam. "He" owns and operates more than 380,000 cars, trucks and vans.

Alerted to possible problems in the federal fleet, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate.

"I was astonished to learn that the federal government spends some $1.7 billion each year on its fleet," says Sen. Collins.

According to the GAO, some government agencies are badly managing their vehicles. They don't know whether their fleet is the right size, or whether they even have the right vehicles for the job.

It's not just that the federal government is having a hard time keeping track of the vehicles it owns. The GAO report says too often money is being wasted to buy vehicles the government doesn't even need or use.

One car was purchased by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1997. It then sat parked behind the VA hospital in Clarksburg, West Virginia, for three years and was never used.

Even the department's own investigators deemed the purchase "not justified" and a "poor business decision."

"I think the average family would be outraged to learn that the federal government is buying vehicles and then not using them," says Sen. Collins.

The GAO report also says the federal government could save taxpayers millions just by getting rid of the vehicles it doesn't need. It estimates the Department of Interior alone could save $34 million a year on unnecessary vehicles. A previous GAO report ten years ago highlighted the exact same kind of waste.

"This is why people think that their vote doesn't matter. It's because they look at this waste and they don't see that anyone is looking out for their interest," says David Williams of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Are the bureaucrats getting the message?

"Fleet maintenance is now on our radar screen," says Assistant Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett. "We're trying to do better... save the taxpayer dollars while also fulfilling our mission,"

They're trying to do better — to "tune-up" what critics say is a "fleecing of America."

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