American Internation Group will consider joining a suit that argues the… (Richard Drew, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — American International Group Inc. has been trying to put on a new face by thanking America for its bailout. But it may end up with more egg on its face for weighing a lawsuit against the U.S. government over the rescue.
Directors of the insurance giant, at their regular meeting Wednesday, are expected to consider joining a suit that argues the bailout — U.S. pledges totaling more than $182 billion — shortchanged the company's shareholders.
"It takes a lot of gall to say the government that bailed you out didn't pay you enough," said John C. Coffee, a Columbia Law School professor and expert on corporate governance.
AIG already had a lot of work to do in rebuilding its corporate image after the company became the public example of excessive risk-taking, which nearly destroyed the global financial system.
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In an ongoing national advertising campaign, the company has been thanking taxpayers for the government bailout in the fall of 2008 when the New York firm, with deep roots in the worldwide banking and financial system, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.
AIG ended up taking about $125 billion of the pledged money in the complex, multi-step rescue by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It recently repaid all the funds, plus interest and dividends, and launched its ad campaign.
Still, the company was the most reviled of bailouts not only for being the single largest rescue but also for paying hefty bonuses to the employees whose bad bets on the subprime housing market would have toppled the company had taxpayers not stepped in.
News that AIG was considering suing the government for that rescue led many Tuesday to respond with a single word: chutzpah.
"This is like suing the paramedic who just gave you CPR because he didn't give you a pillow," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
"Definition of chutzpah," tweeted former Obama campaign senior strategist David Axelrod.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who gained fame heading the government's oversight panel for the $700-billion bailout fund, said: "AIG's reckless bets nearly crashed our entire economy," and it would be "outrageous" for the company to join the suit.
"AIG should thank American taxpayers for their help, not bite the hand that fed them for helping them out in a crisis," she said.
At Wednesday's board meeting, AIG directors are expected to hear presentations about the suit, which was filed by Starr International Co., the firm headed by former AIG Chief Executive Maurice "Hank" Greenberg.
"AIG has paid back its debt to America with a profit, and we mean it when we say thank you to the American people," AIG Chief Executive Robert H. Benmosche said Tuesday.
But he pointed out that AIG's board "has fiduciary and legal obligations to the company and its shareholders" to consider joining the suit. The board expects to make a decision by the end of the month.
But just assessing the suit to avoid any liability should they decide not to join it has made the directors appear ungrateful, Coffee said.
"They probably don't enjoy the position they are in," Coffee said. "It would surprise me if they decided to sue."
Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and Luiz Gutierrez (D-Ill.) wrote to AIG board Chairman Robert S. Miller on Tuesday warning him not to join the suit.
"Don't do it. Don't even think about it," they wrote. "AIG became the poster company for Wall Street greed, fiscal mismanagement and executive bonuses — the taxpayer and economy be damned. Now, AIG apparently seeks to become the poster company for corporate ingratitude and chutzpah."
Directors could have performed their due diligence while publicly distancing AIG from the suit, said Mark Williams, a Boston University finance professor and former Federal Reserve examiner.
"It's just [being] handled so poorly, and I think it reinforces this view that they were a bad corporate citizen before the bailout and they're a bad corporate citizen now," he said. "They haven't reformed."
The Starr suit alleged that the bailout, in which the government initially received an 80% ownership stake in the company, violated the rights of shareholders. The ownership stake later climbed to 92%.
The suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington alleged that the bailout cost shareholders billions of dollars and violated the 5th Amendment, which prohibits the taking of private property for public use "without just compensation."
A similar suit against the New York Fed was thrown out by a federal judge in New York in November. But Judge Thomas Wheeler of the Court of Federal Claims ruled in September that Greenberg's case against the U.S. government could go forward.
"There is no merit to these allegations. AIG's board of directors had an alternative choice to borrowing from the Federal Reserve, and that choice was bankruptcy," said New York Fed spokesman Jack Gutt.
A Treasury spokesman declined to comment.
In December, the government sold the last of its stake in AIG. The bailout formally ended with the taxpayers earning a $22.7-billion profit, although critics noted there were additional, incalculable costs, such as a loss of public confidence in the financial system and a precedent for rescuing financial firms deemed too big to fail.
AIG's "Thank You America" commercials have aired in recent weeks during college football bowl games and National Football League playoff games. In the ads, AIG employees say the company "repaid every dollar America lent us." The company also has run ads in print and online.
"If they're trying to rebuild their image and spending millions of dollars on this 'Thank you' campaign, this has totally undermined it," Williams said. "Now it's, 'Thank you — and give me more money.'"