June 4, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Brian O'Connor

On the Fritz: Government paychecks out of whack with GM CEO's salary

Running govt. subsidiary pays $1.3M but running the country pays $400,000

Henderson )

Now that the U.S. government owns the bulk of General Motors Corp., does that make Fritz Henderson the highest-paid government worker in the country? At an annual base salary of $1.3 million, GM's CEO out-earns President Barack Obama's $400,000 yearly paycheck by more than three times.

On the other hand, Obama gets to fly on Air Force One, while the auto bailout rules require Fritz to fly commercial. Which raises the question: Who WOULDN'T gladly pass up 900 grand if it also meant they didn't have to pass through airport security?

Henderson's closest competitor in this apples-to-oranges survey of government-backed paychecks comes from West Point. The program, under control of the Army, safeguards the salary of its coaches -- including its new head football coach Rich Ellerson -- at about the same level as nuclear launch codes. It's expected, however, that Ellerson will make about the NCAA Division 1-A average of more than $1 million.

Still, Fritz's annual paycheck could buy 10 years of service from the most highly paid civil servant -- a "GS-15, Class 10," in bureaucrat-ese -- who makes a scant $127,604, but can at least get you to the head of the passport line instead of trying to sell you a Chevy Aveo. Speaking of Chevy's subcompact, the annual salary for the lowest-level government worker, a GS-1, Class 1 earning $17,540, would just about cover a new Aveo LT, along with tax title, destination and dealer prep.

The disparity between the pay scale in the boardroom -- even a bankrupt one -- and government work is only heightened by the fact that, by corporate standards, Fritz is workin' cheap. He took a 30 percent pay cut from his $1.7 million base when he was promoted to CEO. (I personally suspect Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner asked Henderson to work for free, telling him, "Hey, it will look great on your resume," but Fritz didn't fall for it.)

Other CEOs pulling down sweet paychecks in the executive suite out-earn Fritz as badly as he does Obama. Just down the street in Dearborn, Ford chief Alan Mulally gets a neat $2 million -- more than 50 percent more. Elsewhere in manufacturing, then-CEO of Deere & Co., Robert Lane, made $8.4 million in cash pay for 2008, but that may be a case of pay-for-performance. Shares of Deere fell a mere 59 percent last year, whereas GM stock slid 87 percent.

Beyond salary, just the total of all Henderson's 2007 perks and personal benefits came to $203,000 -- more than any U.S. senator or most members of the House ($174,000), any sitting circuit judge ($179,500), or any Cabinet secretaries, VA doctors or even the best-paid White House aides ($196,700).

Normally, some uppity reporter might stop to wonder why anyone, let alone an executive whose company has faltered so badly that it needs to be nationalized, should pull down more bucks than the leader of the free world. But let's recall that the question already has been asked and answered -- by none other than Babe Ruth.

When the Bambino was asked how he could demand the then-astronomical salary of $80,000 while President Herbert Hoover settled for $75,000, Ruth, who had just hit his 500th home run, quipped, "I had a better year."

Let's hope Fritz can say the same thing soon.

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