Take off your belt and shoes, empty your pockets, step through the metal detector and pay an extra $17.5 million.
That is how much investigators say has been spent on "premium" salaries for Transportation Security Administration employees who have been promoted without doing any additional work.
"The office employed personnel classified as 'criminal investigators,' even though their primary duties may not have been criminal investigations," said a report by the Homeland Security inspector general. "These employees received premium pay and other costly benefits, although other employees were able to perform the same work at a lower cost."
The inspector general said the extra salaries could cost taxpayers $17.5 million over five years in salary alone for all 124 of the TSA's criminal investigators. The inspector general did not calculate the additional cost of the benefits those employees receive.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said the TSA should not waste taxpayer dollars on staff salaries that don't fit the workload.
"It is unacceptable for TSA to misuse resources when its mission of protecting our aviation systems is so critical," Mr. McCaul said.
Rep. Richard Hudson, the North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security, said the TSA spending was "yet another example of the ills of big-government bureaucracy."
"TSA's inability to correctly categorize employees and properly define their job responsibilities has the potential of wasting up to $18 million within a five-year period," he said. "In tough fiscal times, these types of errors are completely unacceptable."
For handing out higher pay with little justification, the TSA thus wins the Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times to highlight examples of fiscal waste and abuse by the government.
The employees in question work in the TSA's Office of Inspection, which is charged with ensuring the effectiveness of security, taking undercover measures to prevent smuggling through airport checkpoints and evaluating how well screening programs are working.
TSA officials took issue with the report's charge that agency criminal investigators were paid improperly. The officials are doing critical TSA work and are entitled to bonus and overtime pay in accordance with federal regulations, a response from the agency said.
"While [the Office of Inspection] acknowledges that its criminal investigators did perform work that was not categorized as a criminal investigation, it does not necessarily follow that such work was inappropriately performed by [a criminal investigator], nor does it mean that the criminal investigator is improperly classified and/or is not entitled to availability premium pay," the TSA said.
Officials also challenged the inspector general's conclusion that other employees were qualified to do the work that criminal investigators were doing.
The inspector general, however, said there was no proof that employees spent more than 50 percent of their time working on criminal cases. Instead, they monitored criminal cases being conducted by other federal and state agencies, the inspector general said, and reported the results to TSA managers. The criminal investigators also spent time testing airport security and investigating misconduct by TSA employees, tasks that don't require a special pay grade, inspectors said.
"It also cost TSA more in salary and benefits because the noncriminal investigators could have been perform[ing] the work," the inspector general said.
If the criminal investigators were reclassified as transportation security specialists or program analysts, their overtime pay likely would have been a combined $218,000 over two years — far less than the estimated $6.1 million it is now, the inspector general said.
Inspectors said that for employees to qualify as criminal investigators and receive law enforcement pay, they must follow federal law that requires the workers' duties to include "primarily the investigation, apprehension or detention of individuals suspected or convicted of offenses against the criminal laws of the United States."
In addition, the report said, TSA is first and foremost focused on transportation security.
"Therefore, modeling [the Office of Inspection] after a law enforcement agency might not be appropriate," inspectors said.
The extra pay is called law enforcement availability pay, or LEAP, which compensates law officers for often working overtime, overnight or on weekends as the job demands. The TSA estimated that the median base pay for its law enforcement personnel is $161,794 a year.
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