Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2004 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 57645

Bronwyn Lance Chester

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Consumer Reports

Taxpayer-funded blowout that will blow your mind: Bash for security personnel would make P. Diddy proud | Nearly $86,000 for a party planner. Some $1,500 for balloon arches.

$82,000 for plaques. $5,200 for photographs. $200,000 to fly in and house the bash's attendees.

And best of all: $1,500 for cheese.

No, the merrymaker wasn't P. Diddy or Paris Hilton whooping it up in the Hamptons. Instead, it was the Transportation Security Administration, reveling with our tax dollars at the Grand Hyatt in Washington.

All told, the TSA's knees-up in the nation's capital cost a jaw-dropping $500,000, according to The Associated Press. That's a half-million dollars of what President Bush continually reminds us is our money.

Perhaps now we have an inkling of why the Department of Homeland Security, which includes TSA, is fast becoming The Budget That Ate Washington.

More than 500 TSA executives and employees came away from the extravaganza with awards and bonuses. One lucky worker even managed to score a "lifetime achievement award" from the 2-year-old agency.

Odd, when you consider that the cheese was probably older than the outfit serving it.

Or maybe it's just that two years with the transportation agency seems like a lifetime.

Why? Because the back-patting TSA has been rife with mismanagement.

This is the entity that paid one contractor, Pearson, $104 million to hire 30,000 airport screeners in less than a year. In one of the grossest of gross mismanagements of public funds to come down the pike in donkey's years, Pearson, to "widen the recruitment net," set up shop in such hotbeds of hiring as the Hawaiian island of Lana'i, the Virgin Islands, Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the ski nirvana of Telluride, Colo.

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Costs bloated sevenfold. Pearson ended up hiring 60,000 screeners. Since the congressionally mandated limit was 45,000, some 15,000 screeners were abruptly laid off or resigned.

And $124 million of the money TSA paid to Pearson is now under investigation, with $6 million to $9 million of that under the gun as "wasteful and abusive spending practices," according to the Department of Transportation's inspector general.

But wait, there's more.

At least 1,000 federal airport screeners hadn't been fingerprinted for their criminal background checks as of June 2003. Eighty-five of those at Los Angeles International Airport turned out to be convicted felons and were later fired.

And Monday's Wall Street Journal revealed that TSA's lax oversight of its contract with Boeing Co. resulted in $49 million of excess profit for that company.

No one doubts that TSA folks worked long hours in the post-Sept. 11 days when the agency was first created.

But a half-million-dollar party and $16,000 performance bonuses for TSA executives, whose carelessness created this mess, is more akin to a Third-World corruptocracy drunk on aid money than a Bush administration agency supposedly answerable to taxpayers.

This is more than an abuse of the public trust. It hits directly at the agency's core values and how it views its fiduciary duties.

And it goes far beyond the pay grade of hardworking airport screeners, who toil in a thankless job with a cranky flying public.

In fact, they were screwed by their bosses. In investigating TSA's costly self-laudation, Homeland Security's inspector general found that "a substantial inequity exists in TSA's performance recognition program between executive and nonexecutive employees."

One wonders how a screener, who earns an average of $26,000 a year, feels about his employer blowing $500,000 on a party at the Grand Hyatt.

A TSA spokeswoman told The AP that the agency believes the party and bonuses were justified.

But the only thing justifiable is taxpayers' dim view of how government spends our money.

Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, The Virginian-Pilot Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services