WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Challenge coins are part of a military tradition that continues to this day. But the gesture of giving them out is also costing American taxpayers a chunk of change, thanks to some government agencies that buy these coins on your dime.
They’re beautiful, symbolic and at times, expensive. Challenge coins are circulated all over the federal government by various agencies, handed out for everything from recognition for exemplary work to networking opportunities. The tradition's roots are a thing of urban legend. Many stories exist. Most of them tie the coins to the military, with soldiers decades ago given challenge coins as a form of proof they served with a specific unit or group. If challenged publicly, the service member had to produce them immediately.
"It's really a source of identity."
Patrick Moyer works with Signature Coins in Florida, making challenge coins for both the government and private companies. He described the coins, saying, "It’s proof of what you can do, what you’ve done and where you’ve been. Every single one has its own story. Every single one is unique."
The sky is the limit with these coins. Any shape, any color, any design is possible. And while they're not needed as proof of service anymore, Moyer says, the coins are still in high demand in government and military circles.
"It’s a way of showing gratitude," he explained. "When a handshake isn’t enough. When an e-card [isn’t] enough, a thank-you letter, you give them a coin."
But these coins, depending on how they look, can cost a bundle. Although many law enforcement and military groups use their own personal money to pay for the coins, when some government agencies give them away, it's done on the taxpayers' dime. That upsets David Williams with the Taxpayer Protection Alliance in Washington, D.C. He calls them a waste of money: "Taxpayers should not be on the hook for challenge coins. You can really rack up some big bills here."
"This is a really questionable and wasteful use of money."
Circa wanted to know exactly how much taxpayer funding goes toward challenge coins. In our travels throughout D.C., we've seen coins from the FBI, CIA, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Homeland Security and every branch of the military. So, Circa submitted formal Freedom of Information Act requests to each of those agencies, specifically asking how many coins they've purchased in the last three years and at what cost to taxpayers.
The vast majority of the agencies either didn't respond or told Circa our request was "too broad" to supply records. The Drug Enforcement Administration was one of the only agencies that actually copped to how much it has spent. Since fiscal year 2016, the records the DEA supplied show the agency shelled out more than $100,000 on challenge coins, purchasing more than 14,000 of them. The agency indicated it used both "representational funds" that promote goodwill toward the department, as well as general operating funds for situations where the coins are given for retirement or to recognize an achievement.
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The records show the DEA paid anywhere from $4.95 to $18.75 for coins bought by the thousands for specific field offices or units. It also spent as much as $40, $55 or even $110 on single coins in some rare cases. In response to questions about its spending on challenge coins, the DEA pointed out the money is a tiny fraction of the agency's $3 billion annual operating budget. A spokeswoman indicated the coins help the DEA in building good working relationships with law enforcement partners.
"Instead of spending taxpayer money on challenge coins, what about body cameras? What about protective gear for law enforcement officials?" Williams questioned. "If law enforcement officials want these coins, they can pay for them themselves."
And that's the tricky part. Signature Coins tells Circa many organizations it has worked with, including some military units, raise money to purchase their own challenge coins. Employees from some local, state and federal agencies do fundraising as well before purchasing coins. A recent CNN article indicated Secret Service agents created and paid for their own challenge coin to express frustration with the government shutdown.
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A spokesperson from the United States Marshals Service, one of the only other agencies to respond to Circa, said the USMS doesn't let its employees spend their own money on challenge coins. The agency also put a moratorium on spending appropriated funds on challenge coins and other promotional items back in 2011, with the spokesperson calling them "trinkets."
Williams says agencies using taxpayer funding to purchase challenge coins, no matter how honorable their intentions, should follow the Marshals' lead.
"A coin is not going to back somebody up in a dangerous situation. People are going to do that," he said. "That’s what law enforcement needs. More people, not more coins."
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