Transocean's safety-bonus buffoonery

April 6, 2011: 5:49 AM ET

Give Transocean this: It never runs out of ways to make itself look shabby.

The Swiss-based oil driller tried to clean up a major public relations mess, announcing Tuesday that its five top execs will give back a fraction of the bonuses they undeservingly received for last year. Transocean (RIG) put the fool in April Fool's Day last week by awarding the five $898,282 in bonuses in recognition of the "best year in safety performance in our company's history."

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This was at best an odd claim to make for a year in which 11 people, including nine Transocean employees, were killed when the company's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. Showering executives with cash after a double-digit death toll looked even stranger after the board explicitly cited safety concerns in withholding bonuses in 2009.

So what has Transocean learned from four days in the public relations wilderness? Not much, you'd have to say.

Yes, CEO Steven Newman (right) and his top four flunkies will give around a quarter of their 2010 bonuses – more than $250,000 – to a charity the firm formed last year to compensate the families of the accident victims. Just in case you missed the generous spirit behind this gesture, the company specifies that the execs chose to relinquish the safety portion of their bonuses "voluntarily."

That voluntary decision has nothing to do with the beating Transocean is taking in the press, needless to say.

"The executive team made this decision because we believe it is the right thing to do," Newman said.  "Nothing is more important to Transocean than our people, and it was never our intent to diminish the effect the Macondo tragedy has had on those who lost loved ones. We offer our most sincere apologies and we regret the impact this matter has had on the entire Transocean family."

Better late than never. One thing the Transocean execs didn't manage to do was to give back their entire bonuses, which seems to be the course the board set by withholding bonuses in 2009, a year in which four people were killed in accidents at Transocean.

But then, consider how this all feels for Newman and his pals. By relinquishing their unsafety bonuses the Transocean Five stand to cut -- slash? -- their 2010 pay from a respectable $19.6 million to an unthinkable, wage-slaving, poverty-inducing $19.3 million. Haven't these guys given enough?

Transocean's answer, of course, is yes – until the next public relations uproar, at least.

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