Brady Dennis and David Cho
The Washington Post
March 17, 2009

A tidal wave of public outrage over bonus payments swamped American International Group yesterday. Hired guards stood watch outside the suburban Connecticut offices of AIG Financial Products, the division whose exotic derivatives brought the insurance giant to the brink of collapse last year. Inside, death threats and angry letters flooded e-mail inboxes. Irate callers lit up the phone lines. Senior managers submitted their resignations. Some employees didn’t show up at all.

“It’s a mob effect,” one senior executive said. “It’s putting people’s lives in danger.”

[efoods]Politicians and the public spent yesterday demanding that AIG rescind payouts that they said rewarded recklessness and greed at a company being bailed out with $170 billion in taxpayer funds. But company officials contend that the uproar is scaring away the very employees who understand AIG Financial Products’ complex trades and who are trying to dismantle the division before it further endangers the world’s economy.

“It’s going to blow up,” said a senior Financial Products manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the company. “I have a horrible, horrible, horrible feeling that this is going to end badly.”

President Obama yesterday vowed to “pursue every legal avenue to block these bonuses.” But that pledge might have come too late. About $165 million in retention payments started to go out Friday to employees at Financial Products, after numerous discussions with the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.

Attorneys working for the Fed had been examining the matter for months and determined that the retention payments couldn’t be touched because AIG would face costly lawsuits and be subject to penalties from states and foreign governments. Administration officials said over the weekend that they agreed with that assessment.

AIG disclosed its retention-payment program more than a year ago, and the amount of the bonuses — more than $400 million for Financial Products alone — had been widely reported. But as the payments were coming due in recent days, the White House began to express its indignation.

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