US Lawmakers Want SEC and Treasury Department to Answer Questions About Merrill Lynch Executive Bonuses and TARP Funds

US lawmakers are asking government regulators some tough questions about executive compensation at investment banks. Last week, Rep Dennis Kucinich, who heads the House Oversight Committee’s Domestic Policy Subcommittee, asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to determine whether Bank of America Corp. violated federal securities laws when it did not tell shareholders that Merrill Lynch was going to pay executives $3.62 billion in bonuses. Kucinich noted that these bonuses were 22 times larger than what AIG executives were offered-equivalent to 36.2% of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds that Merrill received.

A March filing by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (whose office is also pursuing this matter) claims that even though the firm had already made the decision to accelerate bonus payments, Merrill told Cuomo and the House Oversight Committee that it planned to make incentive compensation decisions at the end of the year. Cuomo claims that Bank of America neglected to tell shareholders that Merrill was going to offer executives big bonuses before the BofA merger was final.

When BofA was questioned about Cuomo’s claims, the bank said it revealed everything it was required to before the shareholders voted on the merger. Kucinich says that this makes him wonder about the SEC’s interpretation of fiduciary duty when it comes to revealing all “material” data to shareholders when asking for shareholder action and what is considers “material” information for proxy rules meant to protect investors under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

He asked the SEC whether it thinks that B of A’s omission is a material one and, if so, what it would do to redress it. The House Oversight Committee is trying to determine whether officials from Bank of America and Merrill misled Congress about the executive bonuses and their timing.

Meantime, Rep. Edolphus Towns, who oversees the House Committee and Oversight Reform, told Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner that he was worried about media reports that the Treasury Department was trying to “circumvent” statutory restrictions regarding executive pay for companies availing of TARP funds. Towns wants Geithner to respond to news reports that the Treasury Department established special entities to receive federal bailout funds that could then be channeled toward corporate recipients so as to avoid executive pay restrictions and requirements that the US get an ownership interest in the bailout firms. Towns cautioned that it would not be wise for the Treasury Department to allow excessive pay practices to continue at firms that taxpayers had bailed out.

Kucinich Asks If Merrill Bonuses Broke Laws, NY Times, April 7, 2009
Read Representative Towns’ Letter to Treasury Secretary Geithner (PDF)

Shepherd Smith Edwards & Kantas LTD LLP is a securities fraud law firm dedicated to helping investment fraud victims recover their losses.