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* Treasury's pay czar meant to limit high pay at bailed-out firms
* Czar pressured on pay by companies, lacks own standard: watchdog
By Anna Yukhananov
WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Treasury Department failed to curb executive pay last year for the second year running at companies rescued by the government, an internal watchdog charged on Monday.
The Treasury's pay czar, or "special master," was tasked with limiting "excessive" pay at companies the government bailed out using taxpayer money during the financial crisis.
But the Office of the Special Master did not follow the rules it had set for compensation, instead letting companies define pay themselves, according to a report by the inspector general for the government's bailout program.
In 2012, the pay czar acceded to company requests in approving multi-million dollar pay packages and pay hikes for top executives at General Motors, AIG and Ally Financial.
The pay czar approved all 18 pay raises requested by the companies, for a total of $6.2 million, and approved pay packages of at least $1 million for 68 of the 69 employees at the companies it was overseeing, the report found.
"While taxpayers struggle to overcome the recent financial crisis and look to the U.S. government to put a lid on compensation for executives of firms whose missteps nearly crippled the U.S. financial system, the U.S. Department of the Treasury continues to allow excessive executive pay," the report said.
Special Inspector General Christy Romero said it was not surprising companies asked for large pay packages and higher pay. "But what we saw in 2012 that is somewhat different than prior years is that this time the companies pushed back on pay, but they seemed to have met no resistance," she said in an interview.
Romero is tasked with overseeing the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP, which pumped $68 billion into AIG, $50 billion in GM and $17 billion in Ally Financial, among others, to save them from collapse during the 2007-2009 crisis.
In December, the Treasury sold the last of its common stock in AIG and said it plans to sell its remaining shares in automaker GM in the next year or so, leaving Ally as the last major company that still owes the government under TARP.
The acting pay czar, Patricia Geoghegan, said her office achieved its mission, cutting average cash compensation for the top 25 executives at bailed-out companies from what they were getting prior to the TARP bailout.
In 2011 and 2012, the office also froze pay for the chief executives of General Motors, AIG, and Ally Financial.
But last year, Romero's office found pressure from financial institutions undermined efforts to limit executive pay at bailed-out companies, especially as some Treasury officials were more concerned with getting TARP funds back than in limiting pay.
Romero said the situation has worsened since then. Contrary to recommendations the inspector general made last year, the pay czar's office has not developed procedures for how to decide compensation or when to determine high salaries are warranted.
"Without developing some criteria ... Treasury put itself in a position of essentially letting the companies drive what pay Treasury was approving," she said.
Under the rules governing pay for TARP recipients, cash salaries are supposed to rarely exceed $500,000. But in 2012, 70 percent of the top executives at TARP recipients overseen by the government had cash salaries of $500,000 or more, a number that has quadrupled since 2009, the report said. Ninety-four percent got cash compensation of $450,000 or more.
Romero said in one situation, the Treasury approved a pay raise of $50,000 for one GM employee because the company wanted to "do a little extra for him."
"This shows the complete lack of appreciation that GM has for the fact that they're owned by taxpayers, and that Americans are in tight budgets and don't have any extra (funds)," she said.
In another case, the pay czar approved a $200,000 pay raise for an employee of Residential Capital LLC, the bankrupt mortgage lending unit of Ally, despite knowing the unit was about to go bankrupt.
Romero said the government's pay curbs were unlikely to have a lasting impact.
The report found it likely AIG will return to its "past practices" in setting high executive compensation now that it has repaid the government's TARP funds.
"The responsibility shifts to the Federal Reserve Board to ensure that AIG does not encourage excessive risk taking through compensation," the report said.