NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -
More than half the nation's largest companies are giving their top executives extra money to pay taxes due on corporate perks such as luxury cars and even on capital gains, according to a published report.
The Wall Street Journal reports that a study the paper ordered from compensation-research firm Equilar Inc. found that 52 percent of the nation's 100 largest public companies revealed that they gave the extra payments to cover taxes, known in the industry as "gross-ups," to one or more top executives last year.
Most of those disclosures are buried in footnotes or attachments of other filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission and are not easily apparent, according to the report.
That practice is spreading, the paper reports, as only 38 percent of the companies made those kinds of payments in 2000.
While some of the payments were only a small portion of executives' pay, other senior managers received millions.
Executives cited by the Journal included Home Depot (Research) CEO Robert Nardelli, whom the paper said received at least $3.3 million to cover taxes on perks such as a luxury car, his family's travel on Home Depot jets and forgiveness of a $10 million loan in 2004.
The paper reports the company issued a written statement that said the payments to Nardelli were properly disclosed and that "consistent with the company's philosophy of attracting and retaining the highest performing leadership available, gross-up payments are sometimes utilized as a part of compensation to achieve a net after-tax effect."
The biggest potential gross up payments could go to executives of North Fork Bancorp (Research), a Long Island, N.Y.-based bank that could pay three top executives $125 million or more to cover taxes on gains they would see if the bank is sold at close to current market prices, according to the paper.
North Fork CEO John Kanas, whom the paper said would be due about two thirds of those gross up payments, told the paper that the potential payments were "approved by the board, and obviously the board thinks that's an appropriate move."
Other executives getting substantial gross up payments according to the paper's report include Regions Financial Corp. (Research), which paid its CEO Jackson Moore $27.3 million in gross-ups to cover a package he got under an employment contract with a bank that was bought by Regions that provided for the payment if that bank had a "change in control."
While those kinds of change in control provisions are meant to protect executives who lose their jobs in acquisitions, Moore ended up running the combined company and still getting the payment.
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. (Research) CEO J. Frank Harrison has received more than $4 million since 2000 to cover taxes on a big restricted-stock grant, and Federated Department Stores (Research), which paid executives' taxes due on the discount they received on purchases from the company's stores. Those discounts and related gross up payments came to $300,000 in 2004, the paper reported, including $100,000 to Vice Chairman Ronald Tysoe.
The paper reports that a Regions spokeswoman declined to comment, and that Coca-Cola Bottling spokeswoman, Lauren Steele, says in a written statement that Harrison's restricted-stock plan "was unanimously passed by the compensation committee, overwhelmingly approved by shareholders and all proper corporate governance protocols were followed."
Federated spokesman Jim Sluzewski told the paper its tax-reimbursement plan had been around for "many years."
But the practice of making the gross up payments was criticized by Patrick McGurn, an executive vice president of Institutional Shareholder Services Inc., which serves as a corporate governance watchdog for major institutional investors.
"This smacks of Leona Helmsley-like treatment, that only little people pay taxes," McGurn told the paper, adding that the companies "are removing taxes from the list of inevitable life experiences, leaving only death."
For a look at how the CEO pay is redefining "sky high," click here.
For a look at top executives getting extra pay to stay in their own homes, click here.