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.
"With these programs, we've been able to recruit better and keep more of the people we need," Dyer said. In 2002, the FDA lost 12 to 13 percent of its employees, while in 2006, with the bonus program in place, it lost 5 percent. Even a few high-profile agency whistle-blowers have received substantial retention bonuses in recent years.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating the bonuses, disagreed with the FDA's assessment of its bonuses.
"FDA officials have raided the U.S. Treasury of $10 million a year, not to hire more inspectors or better compensate the field personnel working to protect us from botulism and E. coli, but to award each other $50,000 bonuses," Dingell said. "Given their recent performance, I doubt the taxpayers would agree that FDA management officials deserve an extra dime, much less tens of thousands of dollars."
Some Republicans also expressed concern. "Somehow the FDA has institutionalized the open till, and some of their least distinguished bureaucrats seem to be grabbing as much as they can. When all you have to do for $30,000 or $40,000 is send in a note saying 'Pay up,' something's rotten," said Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on Dingell's committee.
Glavin's tenure at the FDA has been marked by controversy. Her office angered lawmakers by proposing to close seven of the agency's 13 food-safety labs -- although the FDA suspended the plan yesterday -- and she personally wrote an internal memo critical of FDA employees who told a congressional hearing last month that the FDA had performed poorly in protecting the safety of the food supply. Dingell and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) accused Glavin of sending the memo as part of a "campaign of intimidation and retaliation."
Glavin did not respond to a request for comment.
The FDA also caught congressional fire in 2004 over its slow response to evidence that Merck's pain reliever Vioxx was linked to fatal heart attacks and strokes. The agency was caught by surprise that year when British authorities shut down Chiron, a major producer of the nation's flu vaccine. In 2005, after a long controversy, at least seven deaths caused the FDA to suggest that thousands of heart patients should have their defibrillators, made by Guidant, removed because of defects.
The agency's cash awards were parceled out in more than half a dozen categories: meritorious work rewards, Senior Executive Service bonuses, relocation assistance, student loan payoffs, recruitment awards for employees lured from the private sector, physician services bonuses and retention awards. It is the category in which all recipients were required to sign statements similar to Glavin's that ballooned under the Bush administration, from $2.7 million in 2003 to $8.3 million last year.
The rules for retention bonuses state that employees can be awarded up to 25 percent of their base salary if it is likely that they would leave government and if their retention is "essential" for the agency. "Generally, a retention bonus is used when necessary to match a current competing offer from a non-federal employer," the rules state, requiring a written justification.
But in arguing that entire categories of workers -- such as experienced drug reviewers -- should receive additional pay to remain at the agency, the FDA effectively converted many retention bonuses into automatic annual payments. Dyer said that the agency took up the issue with the Office of Personnel Management, and that it approved the policy. He said the FDA bonuses mirror those at some other federal agencies.
The bonuses have disproportionately gone to those who already have large salaries. The House committee's analysis of FDA bonus data shows that 33 of the most senior career managers -- who earn more than $165,000 a year because of their special talents and experience -- received a total of $900,000 in bonuses last year.
The bonuses -- which are funded in part with fees paid by industry for product reviews -- bring no guarantee of retention. FDA officials acknowledge that employees are free to leave the agency even if they receive the awards.
One of the biggest winners has been Terrell L. Vermillion, a retired Secret Service agent who now heads the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations. He has received nearly $129,000 in retention bonuses and cash merit awards in the past four years on top of his base salary of about $160,000. Last year, the bonuses pushed Vermillion's total FDA compensation to $198,389, putting him above the $194,200 salary of an associate Supreme Court justice or the $165,200 salary of a member of Congress.
Vermillion founded the FDA investigations office and in supporting his bonuses, his bosses listed his successes and said that "based on our experience, it is impossible to recruit someone of Mr. Vermillion's stature." His "loss to FDA at this critical juncture with increasing criminal activity and terrorism threats would be devastating to agency effectiveness."
Vermillion has worked in government for more than three decades, including 14 years as head of the investigative office. Still, he signed a declaration in 2004 to support his bonus that stated: "Reference our past conversations and after due consideration, I am likely to leave the federal government for a higher paying private sector position if the retention allowance is not approved."
Vermillion did not respond to requests for comment.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.