It's once again contract renewal time for the nation's air traffic controllers. The controllers demand better pay, the Federal Aviation Administration pleads poverty.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association officials say the FAA looks to be flush with extra cash. Trucks carrying new and expensive electronic equipment and furniture have been showing up at airports around the country -- a result, the association says, of directives from headquarters to ramp up holiday shopping.

The union says it has documented hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted on furniture, computers and other office equipment. Much of it, the union says, replaced barely used, relatively new items.

"It's going to be hard for them to say it didn't happen," union spokesman Doug Church said. "We've got the photos."

But where the union sees profligacy, the FAA sees "the predictable union silliness with contract negotiations approaching," chief spokesman Greg Martin says. Equipment purchases are a "common end-of-year practice" after essential categories are covered.

"It's like a magician's misdirection," Martin added, "to look at the chairs and not at controller compensation that on average exceeds $160,000." Could be a bumpy few months.

Sherwood Rebounds

Finally, a good week for a Loop favorite, Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.). That pesky $5.5 million lawsuit filed by his 29-year-old mistress, Cynthia Ore, was settled. She'd accused the 64-year-old lawmaker of repeatedly beating her during their five-year affair and had even called the cops one night and alleged he'd choked her. He has acknowledged the affair but denies her other allegations. As is customary, terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Next thing you know, Sherwood is hopping on Air Force One Friday with President Bush, heading up to the Tobyhanna Army Depot in his district, where Bush was speaking on Veterans Day. Bush even mentioned how good it was to have Sherwood on board.

For Byrd, a Hard Look Back

So let's see. . . . The nine Democratic female senators -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Boxer, Barbara A. Mikulski, et al -- are holding a birthday party tomorrow for "Everybody's Favorite Senator," Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). Byrd is an iconic figure in the Senate, especially for Democrats.

But detractors note that Byrd, who's going to be 88 years old, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and on "Meet the Press" four years ago used an anti-black racial epithet. He apologized and has strongly renounced his Klan past.

Still, a Loop Fan writes, "just how ironic is it that this Klansman . . . is being feted at Frederick Douglass House?"

A Worthy Move From FEMA

In a town given to self-aggrandizement and resume inflation, it's nice to see occasional modesty. A recent internal personnel announcement at the Department of Labor, for example, asked everyone to "please welcome the following new members to the DOL noncareer appointees team," a euphemism for political appointees.

There's just a line or two of biography next to each name, along with a contact number.

The last named is Sharon Worthy, who "will soon be joining us as special assistant in the office of public affairs. Sharon is joining us from DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] where she has been in press relations."

Wait a minute! Sharon Worthy? The Sharon Worthy? The FEMA press secretary who's been so much in the news of late for her great e-mails to Michael "Heck of a Job" Brown?

Loop Fans may recall that a couple of hours after a FEMA official in New Orleans reported "many will die within hours" and "we are out of food and running out of water" at the Superdome, Worthy e-mailed a FEMA colleague: "Also, it is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner. Given that Baton Rouge is back to normal, restaurants are getting busy. He needs much more than 20 or 30 minutes. We now have traffic to encounter to get to and from a location of his choice, followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc."

Just the other day, one more Worthy e-mail surfaced in which she advised Brown to "please roll up the sleeves of your shirt, all shirts. Even the president rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this cris[is] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working."

Today's her first day at Labor. Unclear what advice she'll be giving Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao. Blush, no blush?

No Sock Too Small

Now this from the conference report last week on the Bureau of the Census budget: "The Bureau is directed to include socks in its quarterly Current Industrial Reports on Apparel, and to produce a one-time annual report for 2005 domestic sock production. The conference agreement includes sufficient funding for the Manufacturing and Construction Statistics Division for this purpose." So somewhere in town a lobbyist for the USMAA, or United Sock Manufacturers Association of America, is relaxing after a job well done?