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FDA Execs Reap Lavish Bonuses

It's been a bad year for the Food and Drug Administration's top brass. The agency's been accused by Congress of mishandling health scares linked to pet food, Heparin, Avandia and now, tomatoes, CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

But based on their bonuses, you would think it was a banner year at the FDA.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., says he was stunned to learn that 28 senior FDA executives took in a combined $1 million in bonuses last year, pushing their pay above that of members of Congress, federal judges - and even some cabinet secretaries.

"They've done such a miserable job these last two years, I think they should leave! Not get bonuses of $40,000 [to] $50,000!" Stupak said. "Good grief."

For example:

  • $48,000 in a cash award and retention bonus went to an associate commissioner whose plan to overhaul FDA field labs was rejected by Congress as poorly thought-out.
  • $41,000 went to the director of the office of criminal investigations, pushing his total income to enforce one statute to $208,000 - more than the director of the FBI makes.

    "The kicker of course is the person who was hired to reform the bonus system received the biggest bonus," Stupak said. "$58,000."

    On average, those 28 top executives received, on average, an extra $37,000 in 2007. CBS News asked the head of the FDA why.

    "What we are talking about here is the need to have highly experienced, highly capable technical experts that, without which, the country would suffer," said FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.

    Small bonuses to experts, like scientists and doctors, are not what worry congressional investigators.

    They're concerned that a quarter of the $35 million in bonuses the FDA handed out last year went to bureaucrats, not technical experts. And that the same bureaucrats are getting big retention bonuses year after year.

    "These should be referred to not as retention bonuses but blackmail bonuses," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

    Not all FDA employees hit the jackpot. The biggest bonus among the rank-and-file went to the "Inspector of the Year." Her take? A mere $2,500.

    Are there any limits placed on how much these government agencies can spend on bonuses?

    They are not allowed to give a bonus that is larger than 25 percent of an employee's base pay. But beyond that, they don't have to prove an employee deserves to get a bonus or earned a bonus. Congressional investigators argue the FDA is rewarding its top staff more richly than other government agencies - even though it's the agency most frequently referred to as "broken."

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