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Execs’ posh retreat after bailout angers lawmakers

Days after it got a federal bailout, American International Group spent $440 000 on a posh California retreat for its executives, complete with spa treatments, banquets and golf outings, according to lawmakers investigating the insurance company’s meltdown.

AIG sent its executives to the coastal St Regis resort south of Los Angeles even as the company tapped into an $85-billion loan from the government it needed to stave off bankruptcy. The resort tab included $23 380 worth of spa treatments for AIG employees, according to invoices the resort turned over to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The retreat did not include anyone from the financial products division that nearly drove AIG under, but lawmakers still were enraged over thousands of dollars spent on an outing for executives of AIG’s
main US life insurance subsidiary.

”Average Americans are suffering economically. They’re losing their jobs, their homes and their health insurance,” the committee’s chairperson, Representative Henry Waxman of California, said as he scolded the company during a lengthy opening statement at a hearing on Tuesday. ”Yet less than one week after the taxpayers rescued AIG, company executives could be found wining and dining at one of the most exclusive resorts in the nation.”

Former AIG CEO Robert Willumstad, who lost his job a day after the Federal Reserve put up the $85-billion on Septmber 16, said he was not familiar with the conference and would not have gone along with it.

”It seems very inappropriate,” Willumstad said in response to questioning from Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

”Those executives should be fired,” Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama said at a debate with Senator John McCain on Tuesday, referring to the retreat participants. Obama also said AIG should give the Treasury $440 000 to cover the costs of the retreat.

But Eric Dinallo, superintendent of the New York State Insurance Department, said he could see the value of such a retreat under the circumstances.

”Having been at large global companies and knowing what condition AIG was in … the absolute worst thing that could have happened” would have been for employees and underwriters in its life insurance subsidiary to flee the company.

”I do agree there is some profligate spending there, but the concept of bringing all the major employees together … to ensure that the $85-billion could be as greatly as possible paid back would have been not a crazy corporate decision,” Dinallo told the House committee.

The hearing disclosed that AIG executives hid the full range of its risky financial products from auditors, both inside and outside the firm, as losses mounted, according to documents released by the committee, which is examining the chain of events that forced the government to bail out the conglomerate.

The panel sharply criticised AIG’s former top executives, who cast blame on each other for the company’s financial woes.

”You have cost my constituents and the taxpayers of this country $85-billion and run into the ground one of the most respected insurance companies in the history of our country,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat. ”You were just gambling billions, possibly trillions of dollars.”

AIG, crippled by huge losses linked to mortgage defaults, was forced last month to accept the $85-billion government loan that gives the US the right to an 80% stake in the company.

Waxman unveiled documents showing that federal regulators at the Office of Thrift Supervision warned in March that ”corporate oversight of AIG Financial Products … lack critical elements of independence.”

At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers confidentially warned the company that the ”root cause” of its mounting problems was denying internal overseers in charge of limiting AIG’s exposure access to what was going on in its highly leveraged financial products branch.

Waxman also released testimony from former AIG auditor Joseph St Denis, who resigned after being blocked from giving his input on how the firm estimated its liabilities.

Three former AIG executives were summoned to appear before the hearing. One of them, Maurice ”Hank” Greenberg — who ran AIG for 38 years until 2005 — cancelled his appearance citing illness but submitted prepared testimony. In it, he blamed the company’s financial woes on his successors, former CEOs Martin Sullivan and Willumstad.

”When I left AIG, the company operated in 130 countries and employed approximately 92 000 people,” Greenberg said. ”Today, the company we built up over almost four decades has been virtually destroyed.”

Sullivan and Willumstad, in turn, cast much of the blame on accounting rules that forced AIG to take tens of billions of dollars in losses stemming from exposure to toxic mortgage-related securities.

Lawmakers also upbraided Sullivan, who ran the firm from 2005 until June of this year, for urging AIG’s board of directors to waive pay guidelines to win a $5-million bonus for 2007 — even as the company lost $5-billion in the fourth quarter of that year. Sullivan countered that he was mainly concerned with helping other senior executives. – Sapa-AP

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