Mar 152010
 

One of the particularly infuriating aspects of the financial crisis is the unapologetic hypocrisy of the Wall Street titans.

These devotees of free markets didn’t hesitate to grab the taxpayer life preservers blithely tossed to them by the U.S. Treasury when they were about to go under. Taxpayers never got a “thank you,” much less “I’m sorry,” from these geniuses who nearly destroyed our economy.

But one among them has set himself apart. I refer to Maurice Greenberg, the founder of American International Group, or AIG. In its prime, AIG was possibly the largest insurance company on the planet, selling everything from life insurance to environmental liability coverage for big corporations.

Greenberg was used to the royal treatment accorded the billionaires at the top of the Money Industry. He pulled in $20 million in 2004 from AIG and an off-the-books executive slush fund the company setup for its top execs.

Like many of his peers at that level, Greenberg was a major player in American politics. AIG and Greenberg’s charities donated tens of millions of dollars to grease the wheels in Washington and keep his company free of regulation.

But unlike many of his insurance brethren, who had figured out that they were usually better off keeping their thoughts to themselves, Greenberg never hesitated to pronounce his views, especially when he thought it was good for business. So Greenberg put himself and his behemoth insurance company at the forefront of “tort reform” – an insurance industry inspired propaganda effort to blame trial lawyers and personal injury lawsuits (“torts”) for higher insurance premiums.

“Tort reform” conveniently diverted public attention from the fact that insurance companies were raising rates in order to offset investment losses in the stock market  – often while friendly state insurance regulators looked the other way. There was another benefit, too. The “solution” advocated by the insurance companies was to restrict the rights of Americans to have their day in court. This usually involved capping damages or attorneys fees, both of which enabled insurance companies to pay out less in claims, and keep more money for themselves. Too many willing state legislatures fell for this trick, though California voters ultimately got it right and capped the insurance industry’s premiums.

Back in 2004, when George Bush and the Corporate Republican Establishment were firmly in control of Washington, “tort reform” was high on their list of priorities. In fact, they expanded their attack, targeting the class action lawsuits that consumers often bring against corporations. Greenberg was a particularly vociferous cheerleader for the push to limit the ability of injured or ripped-off consumers to undertake a class action.

Referring to legislation that would restrict consumers’ ability to bring a class action lawsuit, Reuters reported in 2004 that “Greenberg likened the battle over reforming class action litigation to the White House’s ‘war on terror.’” Reuters quoted Greenberg as saying, “It’s almost like fighting the war on terrorists….I call the plaintiff’s bar terrorists.”

That was 2004. A year later, Greenberg himself was in a world of legal trouble (PDF). He was ousted in 2005 after an investigation by New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer found that AIG had engineered a series of sham transactions intended to make AIG’s financial picture look better. In 2006, AIG paid $1.6 billion to settle a variety of charges.

Then came the financial collapse. AIG was at the forefront of the form of Wall Street gambling known as “credit default swaps,” under which AIG would sell insurance on packages of subprime mortgages known as “derivatives.” Though long gone, Greenberg remained AIG’s biggest shareholder, so he lost billions when AIG’s credit default swaps went into default and the Bush Administration took over the company in exchange for a taxpayer bailout that now totals $182 billion.

Ever since then, Greenberg’s been insisting on justice… for himself.

Demanding an investigation of the government’s decision to seize AIG, Greenberg suggested “class-action lawsuits that put people under oath in depositions and discovery.”

A fervent deregulator, Greenberg now blames the federal government for failing to regulate his industry. “I don’t recall any regulator coming to look at the [insurance] holding companies, and if they did, it was a very superficial job,” according to a report on a speech Greenberg gave last year.

In a speech in February, Greenberg had this to say about improving America’s judicial system: “We go around the world preaching about the importance of the rule of law…. We better take a look at America and make sure we have the rule of law here first.”

About Harvey Rosenfield

Harvey Rosenfield has been fighting to protect consumers and taxpayers against rip-offs and abuse for thirty years. He’s the author of Proposition 103, the landmark insurance reform initiative, which has saved Californians more than $63 billion in insurance premiums.

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