Former Obama 'pay czar' Feinberg discusses limited role

The Charlotte ObserverMarch 11, 2011 

Ken Feinberg, who once headed the Obama administration's mission to rein in the pay of executives at bailed-out firms, said Thursday that he has always thought the government's role in private-sector compensation should be limited.

Feinberg, the president's "pay czar" during some of the most tumultuous portions of the financial meltdown, also spoke to criticism that he didn't do enough to take back big bonuses from bank executives, and recalled the day he suggested that Ken Lewis, the former Bank of America chief executive, should give up his pay for 2009.

As pay czar, Feinberg's main role was overseeing compensation for top executives at the seven companies that received "exceptional assistance" from the government, including Charlotte-based Bank of America and Citigroup.

He later asked other major banks for information about their executive pay practices and issued a report saying that 17 top banks - including Bank of America and Wells Fargo - had together paid $1.6 billion in "inappropriate" compensation. A report last month by the Congressional Oversight Panel criticized Feinberg for not trying to reclaim any of that money.

In September, Feinberg left his pay czar role to be the Obama administration's point person on the BP oil spill and claims submitted by affected companies. Feinberg, 65, spoke to the Observer during a visit to Charlotte, where he visited the Charlotte School of Law and the Mecklenburg County Bar.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Tell me about the conversation where you asked Ken Lewis to give up his 2009 pay. (Bank of America originally asked Feinberg for permission to pay Lewis $8 million in stock and cash for 2009, according to documents previously released by the Treasury.)

I've never met the man. I did speak to a lawyer representing him (New York attorney Mary Jo White). I told the lawyer that I thought it would be very politic and very financially justifiable if Mr. Lewis, who had announced he was leaving and was getting a severance package in the double-digit millions, that he would be wise to take zero pay. If he didn't, he would undoubtedly be subjected to public criticism and probably a congressional hearing. She (White) was very cooperative.

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