Pay czar takes aim at all TARP takers

By David Ellis, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- White House pay czar Kenneth Feinberg, who has clamped down on executive compensation at the nation's biggest bailout firms, now has a new target: any firm that accepted a government lifeline.

Unveiling a bold new initiative Tuesday, Feinberg said he would examine compensation paid to top executives at 419 companies made between October 2008 until February 2009, a period when the nation's financial system was teetering on the brink.

Kenneth Feinberg, the Treasury Department's special master for compensation.

The review is part of an effort to shed light on whether any firms that accepted money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, paid employees any excessive bonuses or awards during that tumultuous period before Congress stepped in and required greater oversight on pay practices at bailed-out firms.

Feinberg is asking each company to provide information on bonuses, retention awards and all other compensation for their senior executives and next 20 most highly-paid employees within 30 days.

Much of his focus though will be on executives earning more than $500,000, Feinberg said during a press briefing, sparing the hundreds of community and regional banks that also took TARP funds.

His review however, could subject paychecks of hundreds of financial executives, who have otherwise been free from leering eyes, to intense government and public oversight.

Among those likely to endure the greatest scrutiny would be employees at Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) and Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500). All three Wall Street firms are known for paying multi-million bonuses to top performers as well as senior executives in any given year.

And while investors have closely examined pay packages of their top executives, the trio avoided any federal scrutiny after paying back the billions of dollars received under TARP last year.

Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase declined to comment. Goldman Sachs was not immediately available.

To date, Feinberg's efforts have been focused on the seven firms that required an "exceptional" amount of government assistance. Two of those firms -- Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) -- have since repaid all of their bailout funds to the government though.

On Tuesday, Feinberg set 2010 compensation for executives at the remaining firms under his authority -- AIG (AIG, Fortune 500), General Motors, its former finance arm GMAC, Chrysler and Chrysler Financial..

Total pay for those executives would decline by 15% this year, with a larger portion of their compensation coming in the form of stock, according to Feinberg.

GMAC CEO Michael Carpenter, for example, who was appointed to lead the firm last November, will only be paid in the form of company shares.

Feinberg also said Tuesday that executives from AIG's notorious financial products unit, which brought the firm to its knees, had repaid the entire $45 million in bonuses they originally pledged to return.

No Wall Street brain drain

There have been some questions about whether attempts to cap compensation at bailed-out firms would prompt top employees to seek work elsewhere.

But according to Feinberg's latest ruling, more than 80% of the executives that submitted to Feinberg's review in 2009 were still with the same firm earlier this year.

Feinberg's forthcoming review of all firms that accepted TARP funds is expected to be made public by late spring or early summer.

The pay czar said Tuesday he will attempt to negotiate with those companies and employees that were awarded payments that were "contrary to the public interest."

One likely target could be bonuses paid to bank employees for fiscal year 2008.

An analysis of the original nine banks that received money under TARP published last July by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo revealed that those banks still paid out billions of dollars in bonuses in 2008, even as the firms suffered severe losses.

Citigroup, for example, paid an estimated $5.33 billion in bonuses in early 2009, despite suffering more than $27 billion in losses in 2008.

Goldman Sachs, which continues to face criticism over its pay practices, paid out some $4.8 billion in bonuses despite earning just $2.3 billion, according to the report.

It is unclear though, whether those firms may put up a fight. Others have questioned whether Feinberg will have the legal authority to renegotiate some of these employee payments.

--CNN's Lisa Sylvester contributed to this report To top of page

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