Obama Administration: We Didn’t Find Out About AIG Bonuses Until This Month

Mar 17, 2009 7:18pm

Sources in the Obama administration Tuesday said that despite previous media reports administration officials did not know until a couple weeks ago that the officials of the controversial AIG Financial Product Division were set to receive $165 million in bonuses on March 13.

It wasn’t until Thursday, March 5, 2009, administration sources told ABC News, that officials of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York informed officials of the Treasury Department of the full extent of the $165 million in bonuses pending for the controversial Financial Products Subsidiary.

This was three days after the Obama administration had already announced a new commitment of an additional $30 billion for AIG.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was alerted last Tuesday, March 10; he phoned AIG CEO Edward Liddy on Wednesday evening, March 11, to protest the bonuses, sources told ABC News.

On Thursday, March 12, Secretary Geithner informed a senior White House official about the controversy, aides passed the information on to President Obama later in the day.

How the Obama administration was caught flat-footed by this controversy dates back to last Fall, when the New York Federal Reserve Bank — then run by Geithner — stepped in to give AIG a high-interest loan for $85 billion to help prevent the company from going under — which Lehman Brothers was doing at the time. As part of the deal, AIG CEO Robert Willumstad was replaced by the new CEO, Liddy.

In late October, the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program passed Congress, which includes rules about executive compensation but nothing about retention bonuses.

In November, the Fed and Treasury Department soon began pumping more money into AIG — $40 billion, to take down the $85 billion credit facility set up by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

At this point, an Obama administration official says, Treasury officials generally became aware that AIG had put retention programs in place, but whom they were for and the extent of them were unknown. The New York Fed began studying the compensation policies on the books — while also making efforts to save banks and rescue the economy. But by then Geithner’s nomination was pending and he had recused himself from dealings with AIG.

AIG provided information about the company’s myriad compensation packages to the New York Fed, but officials described the information as extremely complex and not easily understood. AIG had more than 100 compensation policies for more than 116,000 employees throughout the world.

In January and February, officials of the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York began working on an additional $30 billion support package to prevent an AIG downgrade. On February 23 and 24, government officials were finalizing the details of the USG support package for AIG; on February 25 and 26, officials of AIG presented the package to the rating agencies, along with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. On February 27, the agencies affirmed AIG’s A- rating.

It was only after that process, on February 28, officials said, when officials of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York email their counterparts at the Treasury Department to inform them of several outstanding issues related to compensation for AIG executives, and to give them a heads up that details of the retention program for the Financial Products subsidiary were forthcoming.       

On March 2, AIG officials announced record losses for their company, along with the restructuring plans and additional $30 billion in government aid. 

Three days later, on March 5, New York Fed officials forwarded to the Treasury Department a summary of AIG’s bonus and retention payment issues, including details of the retention program for officials of the Financial Products. This information included that $165 million in payments were expected that very month, as well as the fact that the contracts were in place in the first quarter of 2008, and so not covered by the limitations in the stimulus bill as articulated by an amendment to the stimulus bill offered by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

As ABC News’ Capitol Hill Correspondent Jonathan Karl reported, in February, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment restricting bonuses over $100,000 at any company receiving federal bailout funds, but during the closed-door House and Senate negotiations the provision was stripped out and replaced with a measure by Dodd exempting bonuses agreed to prior to the passage of the stimulus bill on February 11, 2009.
On March 9, 2009, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York sent full details and supporting documentation to the Treasury Department about the Financial Products retention program.

One day later, Geithner was told about the $165 million in bonuses. 

"Everyone knew that there were retention bonuses on the books," an Obama administration source said, "but no one (in the Obama administration) knew about the $165 million for the Financial Products division" until March 5.

Geithner called Liddy on Wednesday, March 11, Liddy — appointed to run AIG September 2008 — told the Treasury Secretary that he knew about the bonuses and had already talked to company lawyers to try to end them.

But, Liddy said, he’d been told that going after the bonuses — for work from 2008 — would actually cost the government more money because of resulting lawsuits.

The Treasury Secretary expressed concern, pointed out that AIG also had 2009 retention bonuses set up, not to mention $121.5 million in executive bonuses that Geithner wanted trimmed.

On Thursday and Friday, administration sources said, Geithner urged Treasury Department lawyers to try to figure out a way to block the bonuses. But the lawyers ultimately came to agree with AIG’s lawyers; that their hands were tied.

Liddy and Geithner talked again on Friday, the day the $165 million in retention bonuses were being cut, and the Treasury Secretary Geithner acknowledged he did didn’t think he could block the payments going out the door.

But he told Liddy he was going to make efforts to, at a minimum, recoup that money as part of the agreement for the pending $30 billion the government announced in aid for AIG on March 2. Liddy agreed to trim or reduce executive compensation for the top 47 officers of the company, to reduce and renegotiate 2009 bonuses — tying them to performance, specifically to what officers are doing to unwind the company.

Geithner asked Liddy to codify their agreement in a letter, which Liddy sent the Treasury Secretary on Saturday. Throughout the weekend, Treasury Department and White House lawyers explored various options to see if they could block the bonuses, as they continue to do so today, aides said.

– jpt

*This post has been updated.

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