By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 12/30/2004 5:48:25 PM ET 2004-12-30T22:48:25

The Transportation Security Administration nixed the $1,500 cheese plates and $4-a-cup coffee it had at last year’s ceremony recognizing the accomplishments of its employees, and instead opted for off-brand fruit punch and store-bought cookies for this year’s event. 

Those spending cuts and others helped TSA slash the cost of recognition awards from $462,000 last year to $130,000 in 2004, according to figures supplied to MSNBC.com by the agency.

Meanwhile, the agency, which is tasked with protecting the nation's transportation systems, handed out more than $20 million in bonuses this year to lower-ranking employees.  An additional $540,000 went to senior executives, compared with the $1.45 million it handed out last year to the same executive group, TSA said.

“The bonuses allow TSA to recognize the hard work and commitment of a number of its employees over the past year,” said Amy Von Walter, an agency spokeswoman.  “Such recognition is appropriate and demonstrates our appreciation of the efforts of the workforce,” she said.  “Furthermore, the individuals selected were carefully selected based on their contributions to the agency and its mission.”

A report in October from the Homeland Security Department inspector general upbraided the TSA for lavish spending on last year’s awards ceremony and for handing out bonus money to its executives that created “a substantial inequity” compared with the amount set aside for non-executives; however, the report also noted that the agency didn’t supply complete data on cash awards given to its rank-and-file employees.

Last year TSA held its awards ceremony in an upscale Washington hotel, flying in employees and family members from around the nation for the event.  Transportation and lodging alone last year cost the agency about $200,000. The final bill for last year’s awards program came to $461,745, according to the inspector general’s report. 

This year the agency held a small, invitation-only event in Washington and low-key ceremonies at the nation’s 425 commercial airports. In Washington the ceremony was held in a spare government auditorium at no cost to TSA; the total tab for this year’s Washington event came to just $7,250, according to figures supplied by the agency.

The local awards ceremonies held at individual airports cost a total of $123,000, said Von Walter, the agency spokeswoman.  Empty on-site TSA training rooms were used for the events, she said, adding that some local federal security managers “even dug into their own pockets to buy sub sandwiches.”

At the Washington ceremony, award recipients received plaques worth $50 apiece.  At local ceremonies federal security directors had the option of handing out plaques or equivalent cash awards, Von Walter said.  Approximately 50 TSA headquarters employees and 1,920 field office employees received the “honorary incentive awards,” Von Walter said.

Last year TSA gave some 88 executives an average of $16,500 in bonuses, according to the inspector general report, an average amount much higher than other agencies, the report said. This year 49 TSA executives received bonuses averaging $11,000.

However, the agency handed out more than $20 million in bonuses to about 60 percent of its screener workforce, according to agency figures, for an average of $660. The TSA employs about 50,000 passenger and baggage screeners.  here were no comparative figures available for the total amount TSA gave to the same group last year.

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