The passion of AIG

This week the White House has expressed shock and anger over the $165 million in bonuses due to AIG employees. The Washington Post reports, however, that President Obama was informed about the bonuses the day before they were paid out last week. The Post’s report is based on a timeline released by the White House late Tuesday.

The AP moves the timeline back even further. According to Julie Hirschfield Davis and six other AP reporters who assisted her, “For months, the Obama administration and members of Congress have known that insurance giant AIG was getting ready to pay huge bonuses while living off government bailouts.” The AP reports:

While administration officials insisted Tuesday that neither Obama nor Geithner learned of the impending bonus payments until last week, the problem wasn’t new. AIG’s plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars were publicized last fall, when Congress started asking questions about expensive junkets the company had sponsored. A November SEC filing by the company details more than $469 million in “retention payments” to keep prized employees.

Back then, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., began pumping Liddy for information on the bonuses and pressing him to scale them back. “There was outrage brewing already,” Cummings said. “I’m saying (to Liddy), ‘Be a good citizen. … Do something about this.’ ”

Around the same time, outside lawyers hired by the Federal Reserve started reviewing the bonuses as part of a broader look at retention and compensation plans, according to government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The outside attorneys examined the possibility of making changes to the company plans – scaling them back, delaying them or rescinding them. They ultimately concluded that even if AIG’s bonuses were withheld, the company would probably be sued successfully by its employees and be forced to pay them, the officials said.

In January, Reps. Joseph E. Crowley of New York and Paul E. Kanjorski of Pennsylvania wrote to the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department pressing the administration to scrutinize AIG’s bonus plans and take steps against excessive payments.

“I at that point realized that we were going to have a backlash with regard to these bonuses,” Kanjorski said in an AP interview. In a meeting with Liddy later that month, he said he told the AIG chief that “all hell would break loose if we didn’t find a way to inform the public … and that we should take every step to put that information out there so we wouldn’t have the shock.”

Around the same time, Congress and Obama’s team were passing up an opportunity to put in place strict laws to revoke bonuses from recipients of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. In February, the Senate voted to add such a proposal to the economic recovery bill that cleared Congress, but in final closed-door talks on the measure, that provision was dropped in favor of limits that affect only future payments.

“There was a lot of lobbying against it and it died,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who proposed the measure with Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine. He said Obama’s team is sending mixed messages on what will and won’t be tolerated on bonuses, with the president coming out strongly against excessive Wall Street rewards but top officials not following through.

“The president goes out and says this is not acceptable, and then some backroom deal gets cut to let these things get paid out anyway,” Wyden said. “They need to put this to bed once and for all.”

The administration is shocked — shocked! — that the bonuses are being paid. One can only wonder if President Obama watched “Casablanca” before including it in his gift package of classic American films for Prime Minister Brown.

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