Payback time for AIG: Treasury, Congress go after the bonuses

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In an effort to quell a mounting furor, the Treasury Department said late Tuesday that it would require American International Group to repay the government more than $165 million in bonuses doled out last week to the executives blamed for driving the firm to insolvency.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the money would be deducted from the government's latest $30 billion infusion of bailout funds to the insurance giant at the center of the nation's deepening financial crisis.

Geithner also said future bonuses would be subject to tough new limits now being developed for crippled companies getting rescued with taxpayers' money.

The bonus payments, which came to light over the weekend, have provoked nationwide disbelief and touched off finger-pointing from the White House to Wall Street. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo disclosed on Tuesday that 73 present and former employees received at least $1 million each in bonuses.

In his letter to Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress, Geithner said he called AIG Chairman and Chief Executive Edward Liddy and "registered my strong objections" after first learning of the planned bonuses.

Citing legal opinions that it was required to honor the bonuses, AIG made the payments anyway last week.

In his disclosure Tuesday, Cuomo said individual bonuses were as high as $6.4 million. AIG even gave $4.6 million to an unidentified official who has left the company and at least $1 million to 10 other former employees, Cuomo said in a separate letter to Congress.

AIG, however, has continued to shield the names of the recipients.

In his letter to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Cuomo also said that seven people were paid over $4 million each and 22 got at least $2 million each.

Cuomo said that his office obtained copies of contracts providing for the bonuses, and they "shockingly" required most of the awards to match what the employees got in 2007, "despite obvious signs that 2008 performance would be disastrous in comparison to the year before."

AIG attorneys apparently failed to consider the argument that contracts committing the company to pay bonuses exceeding $165 million might be invalid because the firm would be bankrupt were it not for a taxpayer bailout that's now approaching $182 billion, Cuomo wrote Frank.

The disclosures put Liddy under mounting pressure as he prepared to testify on Wednesday before a House Financial Services subcommittee examining the firm's impact on the global economy.

Treasury Department officials have said that September's federal bailout and takeover of AIG were necessary because an AIG collapse and default on tens of billions of dollars in insurance-like contracts with banks would've triggered a chain reaction that would've toppled the U.S. and global financial systems.

In an appearance on CBS News on Sunday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that he'd gotten so irate over the bailout of AIG, a company that had made "all kinds of unconscionable bets," that he'd "slammed the phone more than a few times . . . I understand why the American people are angry."

Cuomo, in his letter to Frank, said that "AIG made more than 73 millionaires in the unit which lost so much money that it brought the firm to its knees, forcing a taxpayer bailout. Something is deeply wrong with this outcome. I hope the committee will address it head on."

Cuomo's office subpoenaed AIG Monday night, demanding the names of those receiving bonuses. The attorney general complained in the letter that the company had failed to deliver the names, making it impossible to test AIG's assertion that these workers are vital to "unwinding" its risky involvement in exotic, insurance-like trades that fueled the Wall Street meltdown.

Joseph Norton, a spokesman for AIG, said only that the insurer is "in ongoing contact with the attorney general and will respond appropriately to the subpoena."

It wasn't immediately clear whether the company provided the contracts and summary information about bonuses for employees of its Financial Products subsidiary, or whether Cuomo's investigators obtained the material independently.

Cuomo said that in October, a month after AIG first received bailout money, the firm agreed to his office's request that no payments be made from a $600 million deferred compensation pool for Financial Products employees. He expressed dismay, however, that the company went ahead with bonuses from a separate retention plan.

"Had the federal government not bailed out AIG with billions in taxpayer funds, the firm likely would have gone bankrupt and surely no payments would have been made out of the plan," Cuomo wrote. He said that "it is not at all clear" that AIG lawyers considered that likelihood in concluding that the company was contractually obligated to pay the bonuses.

Cuomo also noted that AIG officials bargained with their Financial Products employees, who've agreed to work for salaries of $1 this year in exchange for the bonuses, suggesting that the company had "far more leverage" than it has asserted.

In response to a congressional subpoena last fall, a former AIG Financial Products accounting vice president, Joseph St. Denis, said it was his understanding that salaries were capped at $125,000 per year, but that bonuses paid every December "could be substantial — in some cases running to eight figures," or up to $10 million.

(David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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