|AP / Susan Walsh|
The good judge smelled a rat.
"Was there some sort of ghost that performed these actions?" New York federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff demanded to know Monday in rejecting a deal that would let Bank of America off the hook in yet another banker bonus scandal. The Securities and Exchange Commission had charged the bank with covering up for outrageous bonuses given out at Merrill Lynch as the bank acquired the failed stockbrokerage, and now it was letting the bank off the hook with a chicken-feed fine.
"Do Wall Street people expect to be paid large bonuses in years when their company lost $27 billion?" the judge asked, and Lewis J. Liman, the lawyer for Bank of America, assured him they do: "My God! Bonuses on Wall Street? It is not a matter of surprise."
But for those of us less sophisticated in the ways of Wall Street, it is a surprise that Merrill Lynch executives were rewarded for failure at the same time Bank of America was using $45 billion in taxpayer funds to take over the brokerage house. Six hundred ninety-six executives who helped run Merrill into the ground were granted more than a million bucks each.
BofA lawyer Liman attempted to put an egalitarian spin on this government-sponsored welfare for the superrich by pointing out that all told, another 39,000 Merrill employees averaged only $91,000 in bonuses, but the judge wasn't having it: "I'm glad you think that $91,000 is not a lot of money; I wish the average American was making $91,000."
That's the point; the average American is paying for the banking debacle not only in taxes for the bailout but with lost jobs and homes. Yet the SEC, which is supposed to be protecting the ordinary citizen's interests, decided to give BofA execs a bye. The question is why Bank of America and Merrill failed to inform their shareholders that such payoffs were part of the deal. The details of the bonuses were known to BofA CEO Kenneth Lewis and other top bank executives but not mentioned in the merger agreement or proxy statements sent to the company's shareholders for approval.