As federal hearings into the cause of the financial crisis got underway this week, attention has focused on one key outstanding question: Whether the giant insurer American International Group committed fraud in the run-up to its $182 billion bailout.
The records of AIG's actions presumably are contained in company documents and e-mails. Some of those records have been obtained and published by news organizations and congressional investigators. But some lawmakers and former financial prosecutors argue that most details remain unknown and should be made public--an idea resisted so far by congressional Democrats and AIG's regulators.
The little the public knows about AIG's bailout pertains to the company's use of $25 billion in government money to buy back toxic securities from Wall Street's big banks.
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member of the Committee on House Oversight and Government Reform, released e-mails showing that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, AIG's regulator, kept details of these payouts secret while now-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was in charge of the New York Fed. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission scrutinized the payouts--specifically to Goldman Sachs-- at a hearing Wednesday. Then Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the oversight committee, subpoenaed the New York Fed this week for all documents related to the payouts, including Geithner's e-mail and phone logs.
AIG was a pioneer and the world's top player in the trade of credit default swaps - exotic instruments blamed for fueling the cascade of financial disasters in 2007 and 2008. The company ultimately received four separate federal bailouts and, unlike big banks, is unlikely to pay it all back to taxpayers.
AIG's financial products division, which handled the swaps, is a "black box, the epicenter" of the financial crisis, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer said in an interview. Given that taxpayers own nearly 80 percent of the company, Spitzer said, the public is entitled to see a decade's worth of AIG's e-mail, internal accounting documents and financial models. This information will help prosecutors determine whether AIG employees broke the law, he said.
"It's the best use of our money," said Spitzer, who as New York's attorney general was known as the Sheriff of Wall Street for prosecuting financial titans. Spitzer leveraged his performance as attorney general into the governor's mansion before resigning in a prostitution scandal in 2008.
Spitzer's call for AIG records has gained traction among some congressional Republicans.
Issa, according to a spokesman, would support expanding the subpoena. "In our pursuit to fully understand what risks led to the financial meltdown, we should access and release as much information as we possibly can," said the spokesman, Kurt Bardella.
But Issa lacks the power to issue subpoenas. And those who can compel AIG to turn over the documents are so far balking at the idea.
Towns' staff, for instance, has said the congressman is limiting his investigation to AIG's payments to banks. This inquiry likely will produce documents from the last year or two.
"The subpoena Chairman Towns will issue to the Federal Reserve Board of New York is a responsible and targeted effort to uncover important facts about important issues," said Jenny Thalheimer Rosenberg, communications director for Towns' committee.
If Congress won't act, Spitzer said, the AIG Credit Facility Trust should. The New York Fed created the Trust last year to hold and oversee the taxpayers' investment in the company. Although the Trust's three members are not allowed to interfere in the day-to-day affairs of the company, they have authority to oust AIG's current board. If the trustees wanted, Spitzer said, this implicit threat could compel the board to release the documents.
The trustees "have the opportunity to be among the most effective and influential investor advocates in history," Spitzer and two other experienced fraud investigators said in a recent op-ed article in the New York Times. "Before A.I.G. escapes, they should demand the evidence," wrote Spitzer; Frank Partnoy, a former investment banker; and William K. Black, a former banking regulator who led investigations of fraud during the savings-and-loan scandal.
But the Investigative Fund found that the trustees, who each receive an annual $100,000 salary, are steering clear of the controversy. "The trustees have no comment regarding the suggestion that AIG's board release the e-mails of the company, nor will they comment on any views they might have on that issue," Peter Bakstansky, the Trust's adviser, said in an e-mail.
Although the New York Fed says the trustees are independent, each is either a current or former Federal Reserve official.
One trustee, Jill M. Considine, chairs a firm that administers hedge fund portfolios and is a former board member of the New York Fed. Another trustee, Chester B. Feldberg, was an employee of the New York Fed for 36 years. Douglas L. Foshee, chief executive of the El Paso Corporation and former chief operating officer of Halliburton, is the current board chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas' Houston branch.
Without the trust's cooperation, another potential route for obtaining AIG's documents is the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. When Congress created the bipartisan commission, lawmakers gave it subpoena power.
A spokeswoman was unsure whether the commission planned to apply its subpoena power to AIG.
But at the commission's first hearing on Wednesday, its chairman, Phil Angelidies, probed AIG's government-subsidized payments to Goldman Sachs and other big banks.
Goldman was one of several banks that bought AIG's credit default swaps, which insured the banks against losses on their risky mortgage-backed investments. When the investments collapsed, AIG owed billions to Goldman, Bank of America and Citigroup, among others. Instead of honoring the insurance agreements, AIG used $24 billion in taxpayer funds to buy the mortgage investments from the banks at 100 cents on the dollar.
But many of the investments were worth substantially less than their face value, according to a report last year by the special inspector general for the bailout.
At the hearing, Angelides asked Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman's chair and chief executive officer, whether government regulators ever asked him personally to accept a discount from AIG.
Blankfein's answer: "Never."
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