By LAWRENCE A. CUNNINGHAM
Published: March 18, 2009
PRESIDENT OBAMA on Monday instructed the Treasury Department to “pursue every single legal avenue” to recover $165 million in bonus payments the insurance giant A.I.G. recently made to nearly 400 employees in its financial products unit. A.I.G. has, of course, received $170 billion in bailout funds and yet continues to incur extraordinary losses – some $62 billion last quarter alone.
A.I.G. insisted it was legally obligated to make the bonus payments and that failure to pay would breach its contracts with employees and expose it to penalties under state employee protection laws. The company also warned that breaching the agreements would amount to defaulting on numerous other business contracts, at staggering cost.
Amid this standoff, there has been an explosion of outrage against perceived excessive compensation to those who precipitated the financial crisis. Some lawmakers have threatened to impose a 100 percent tax on the A.I.G. bonuses and Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, even wildly suggested that the company’s executives consider suicide for their culpability. But moral outrage and public rebuke do not provide legal grounds for backing out of a contract.
If the government is serious about finding a legitimate basis for abrogating these payments, officials must look to basic legal principles. And if A.I.G. is serious that it is legally bound to pay these bonuses, it must do more than say nonpayment would expose it to damages or penalties. Nor is it enough to invoke the sanctity of contracts, because our legal and business system recognizes plenty of valid excuses from contractual duty and even justification for breaching.
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