FDA's Retention Bonuses Rise to the Top

By John Solomon and Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Before paying $48,823 in cash bonuses to its chief of regulatory affairs in 2005, the Food and Drug Administration asked her to sign a simple declaration: "If I am unable to receive a retention allowance, I am likely to leave the federal government for a higher paying position in the private sector," wrote Margaret O'K. Glavin.

Glavin's statement did not detail a specific job offer, but that did not impede the payment. Over the past 4 1/2 years, she has collected more than $178,000 in cash bonuses -- on top of her $159,840 annual salary.

FDA officials justified Glavin's bonuses by saying her pay should be close to the salaries of those employed by companies she regulates, namely Washington lobbyists. The private-sector comparison has prompted large cash bonuses for top agency officials to quadruple since 2002, to $13.6 million in 2005, according to FDA officials and salary information provided to Congress.

The bonuses were paid during a rough patch at the FDA, encompassing a shortage of flu vaccine and embarrassing recalls of the pain-relieving drug Vioxx and malfunctioning heart defibrillators. Throughout, the agency repeatedly insisted that it lacked the resources to conduct adequate food and drug inspections.

The payments, which have attracted bipartisan criticism from lawmakers, offer an unusually detailed look at how the administration has implemented a cash bonus program that Congress expanded in 2004 to attract and retain talented federal employees.

Lawmakers say that at the FDA, many of the bonuses went to the highest-paid officials rather than the scientists, inspectors and doctors most at risk of jumping to the private sector. To critics, the payments bore little relationship to the agency's performance and reputation or to the likelihood that someone might depart. Agency officials disagree and call the program a success.

Federal workers in Washington make an average of about $88,000 a year. As a result of the bonuses, scores of FDA managers and employees earn double that and more -- pay in some cases greater than that of members of Congress, federal judges and Cabinet secretaries, according to the data shared with Congress.

The bonuses appear to have spiked in 2005 -- to $13.6 million, from $7.2 million in 2004 -- when the embattled Lester M. Crawford was fighting to win and then keep his job as FDA commissioner. One program aimed at physicians accounted for $4 million of the increase, the FDA records show.

The commissioner's office -- which mostly includes policy officials and not practicing scientists -- nearly doubled the amount of its retention bonuses, from about $415,000 in 2002 to nearly $800,000 last year, the data also show.

Glavin, an English major who rose through the ranks of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service before joining the FDA in 2003 as assistant commissioner for counterterrorism policy, collected $44,614 in bonuses in 2006 alone, according to the records. That accounts for 11.1 percent of all the cash bonuses exceeding $5,000 that were awarded to her entire 3,500-employee Office of Regulatory Affairs.

In contrast, the FDA investigator who won the agency's top national award last year received a much smaller bonus. "I was nominated for a cash award for $2,500, but after taxes I got just $1,400," said Rebecca Parrilla, a chemical engineer who said she has worked at the FDA for more than eight years and was unaware how much her bosses in Washington were collecting in bonuses.

John R. Dyer, FDA's chief operating officer, said yesterday that while the FDA provided the raw data to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he cannot verify that the tallies made by committee aides are accurate or complete. He said the cash-bonus policy has largely succeeded.

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