The grinch who stole Christmas arrived in time for Thanksgiving at the Department of Health and Human Services, walking away with 1,200 payroll checks worth $1.2 million that were supposed to be handed out this morning.

The thief drilled a hole into the mailroom safe containing the checks over the weekend, according to HHS spokesman Tom McFee, but then discarded about 700 of the smaller checks in trash cans throughout the Humphrey Building at 330 Independence Ave. SW. He said about 500 checks worth $800,000 are still missing.

But McFee said the 1,200 employes expecting their biweekly checks in time for Thanksgiving won't be disappointed. He said the Treasury Department yesterday started printing a new batch of checks that will be distributed this afternoon or tomorrow morning. Payment has been stopped on all the stolen checks and, according to the Secret Service, the word "substitute" will be stamped on the new ones.

Janice Foster, a receptionist in the office of HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler, said the theft was "bad news" and that she was not convinced that she would get her check before next week.

"I was planning on making a down payment on a new car Wednesday night," she said. "Now, I'll just have to wait until next week."