Tracking Inequality

America's Greediest: The 2009 Top Ten

Who deserves to sit on this year’s list of our most avaricious? We could pick ten eminently deserving greedy straight from any big bank on Wall Street. But why spoil all the fun?

By Sam Pizzigati

Has picking a year’s greediest “top ten” ever been easier? We don’t think so. We could, this year, fill an entire top ten just with bankers from Goldman Sachs — or JPMorgan Chase or any of a number of other Wall Street giants. All sport executive suites packed with power suits who fanned the flames that melted down the global economy, then helped themselves, after gobbling down billions in bailouts, to paydays worth mega millions — at a time when, in over half our states, over a quarter of America’s kids are living off food stamps.

tax surveyNow that’s greed. But that’s also not the whole picture. The Great Recession’s greedy don’t just sit on Wall Street. They occupy perches of power throughout the reeling U.S. economy. So we’ve tried, in this our latest annual ranking of avarice, to survey that bigger picture.

Where does all this greed come from? We humans have always, of course, had greed among us. But levels of greed vary enormously from one historical epoch to another — and from one society to another.

What determines which societies see the most greed and grasping? In a word: inequality. The more wealth concentrates, the more greed grows. The United States remains the most unequal nation in the developed world. Next year, we suspect, will bring us still another bumper crop of greedy.

10: Richard Anderson

America’s airlines have been flying, for the most part, under the media radar ever since the nation’s banks went into meltdown mode, and that suits Delta CEO Richard Anderson just fine.

Delta, now the world’s biggest airline, has been richly rewarding Anderson ever since he became the airline’s top exec in September 2007. If folks were paying attention, they might wonder why. Delta, after all, lost $8.9 billion in 2008. In 2009, Delta and other U.S. carriers, says the International Air Transport Association, will likely lose a combined $1 billion.

Passengers are certainly feeling this red ink. Delta and other carriers have been trimming seating capacity, a move, notes the Orlando Sentinel, designed to “enable them to raise ticket prices more often.” Delta is also squeezing passengers with airport bag fees. In August, the airline’s bag charges bounded to $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second.

Anderson and his family, meanwhile, don’t just fly free on Delta. The airline also pays the taxes due on Anderson’s free tickets — and lots more, too.

For agreeing to become Delta’s chief, 28 months ago, Anderson picked up $8.5 million in stock awards. Seven months later, another $3.4 million. Six months after that, to celebrate the Delta-Northwest merger, more options to buy Delta stock, worth $7.3 million, and more actual shares, worth $6.1 million.

With all those rewards, Anderson must be devoting every waking hour to making Delta soar, right? Well, almost every waking hour. Anderson has been spending some of his precious hours serving on the corporate board of Medtronic, a medical tech firm. In 2009, from the good people at Medtronic, he’ll pocket $188,000 for his directorship services.

9: George David/Marie Douglas-David

This power couple hit the headlines last March, with a nasty divorce trial. We tried to pick the most greedy of the pair. We failed. Here’s why.

The 67-year-old George David, the former CEO of defense contracting powerhouse United Technologies, comes with impeccable greed credentials. In the four years after the 9/11 attacks, David hauled home bigger paydays than any other defense executive, over $200 million in all, including $88.3 million in 2004, a sum that made him that year’s top-paid CEO.

Taxpayers, noted the Institute for Policy Studies Executive Excess CEO pay report in 2006, provide a third of United Technologies annual operating income.

But George has found his match in avarice. Marie Douglas-David, a Wall Street investment banker before she married George in 2002, signed a pre-nup before her wedding day that entitled her to $20,000 a week should the marriage break up, a not unreasonable possibility given the 30-year age gap between the two.

The couple did separate last year and this past spring went to court after Marie sued to overturn the pre-nup. She demanded $53,000 a week. Marie needed extra cash, said her lawyers, to cover her basic expenses. Among those basics: “$4,500 a week for clothes, $8,000 for travel, and $1,500 for eating out.”

8: Steve Wynn

Last February, Las Vegas gaming industry kingpin Steve Wynn announced an across-the-board wage and hour cutback for all employees at his resort empire. The total savings for Wynn Resorts: between $75 and $100 million.

In November Wynn Resorts announced a special $4-per-share dividend. Total cost of the dividend payout to Wynn Resorts: $492 million. Total dividend check that will go to Steve Wynn: $88.6 million.

Wynn currently rates 141st on the annual Forbes list of America’s 400 richest. But his fortune has faded some $900 million, to just $2.3 billion now, since last year. A typical American family, according to Census Bureau figures, would have to work nearly 18,000 years to make $900 million.

Wynn, ever the trooper, isn’t crying in his cocktails over his near-billion-dollar misfortune. He “rang in” the 2009 new year skimming the Caribbean on a 183-foot mega yacht, then went on to spend lovely winter days dodging gossip columnists on the Riviera and in the Alps.

7: Robert Rubin

Back in 1997, then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin won huzzahs the world over for his efforts to fix the Asian financial crisis. One crisis “solved,” Rubin proceeded to help create another — by brokering the 1999 deal that repealed the New Deal’s most important financial industry reform legislation.

That reform, the Glass-Steagall Act, essentially prevented investment banks from speculating with the cash commercial banks and insurance companies were collecting from depositors and policy holders. Glass-Steagall would be weakened over the years, but still had enough oomph, at century’s end, to prevent Citicorp from finalizing a merger with Travelers Group insurance.

Citi, America’s biggest bank, and Travelers needed Glass-Steagall eliminated. Rubin obliged. His contacts and credibility, notes Public Citizen president Robert Weissman, helped speed repeal through Congress — and paved the way for the wild Wall Street run that crashed the U.S. economy.

Rubin, a Goldman Sachs alum before his stint at Treasury, would go on to join the newly merged Citigroup as a senior strategist. Citi, betting heavily on subprimes, would go on to lose over $65 billion during Rubin’s stint, and, this past January, Rubin formally resigned his Citi duties.

Overall, Rubin pocketed $126 million in cash and stock for his Citi labors. But he seems to regard his years at the bank as something akin to public service. Declared Rubin in one exit interview: “I bet there’s not a single year where I couldn’t have gone somewhere else and made more.”

6: Andrew Hall

If you happen to be Andrew Hall, the world’s most celebrated commodity trader, you don’t care what other people think. Hall waged a four-year battle — against his neighbors in the posh Connecticut town of Southport — to keep a 80-foot-long concrete sculpture on his lawn.

The neighbors won, and Hall had to remove the concrete eyesore. He promptly replaced it with two garishly painted “cartoonlike” sculptures of cars.

Hall can afford plenty of sculptures. He took home $100 million betting on oil futures and other commodities in 2008 — after picking up a quarter-billion over the previous five years — and stood to receive another $100 million this year.

But his employer, Citigroup, balked. Citi, by that time, was sitting on $45 billion in taxpayer bailout dollars, and handing $100 million to Hall, the honcho of Citi’s commodity-trading subsidiary, would have created a PR disaster for the bank — and the Obama administration as well.

Hall didn’t care. He demanded his trading fee. Citi ended up having to sell off Hall’s subsidiary, at a bargain basement price, to end the Hall headache.

Our story, to be sure, does have a happy ending — for Hall, Citi, and federal pay czar Kenneth Feinberg. Hall will get his $100 million, but not until next year. That deferral let Citi claim a zero pay expense for Hall in 2009, and Citi’s pay outlays for the year now show up about $100 million less than last year.

This accounting razzmatazz helped skew the 2009 executive pay totals for the seven biggest bailout basket cases and enabled pay czar Feinberg to claim that pressure from his office had, “on average,” reduced executive cash comp at the seven by an impressive — and thoroughly misleading — 90 percent.

5: John Chambers

Earlier this year, with lawmakers mulling over legislation to limit CEO pay, a high-powered New York business group convened a “Task Force on Executive Compensation” to show that corporations could clean up their own act.

The final report from this task force, issued this fall, asked companies to commit themselves to executive pay that’s “fair” and “clearly aligned with actual performance.” Among the first half-dozen companies to make that commitment: Cisco, the Internet networking giant.

Just days later, a federal filing revealed that Cisco was awarding “discretionary bonuses” to its five top executives for the fiscal year that ended this past July. Why “discretionary”? The company couldn’t give the execs regular bonuses since all five missed their “performance” targets.

Cisco says the five execs delivered “solid financial performance” while facing “tough economic challenges.” Not that solid. Cisco has laid off over 1,500 workers since the economy turned challenging. Cisco CEO John Chambers, for his part, has pocketed $232.7 million over the last five years.

Back in 2000, Cisco reigned briefly as the world’s biggest company, as measured by total share value. Then the dot.com bubble burst. But Chambers unloaded a ton of shares before the bubble popped — and cleared a $156 million windfall.

The janitor who cleaned Cisco’s executive suites that year, observed the San Jose Mercury News at the time, would have to work 8,653 years to earn what Chambers made in one.

4: Rupert Murdoch

Billionaires never rest. They don’t let their assets rest either. Take media mogul Rupert Murdoch, for instance. Three years ago, Murdoch shelled out an estimated $30 million for a 183-foot yacht he calls the Rosehearty. He’s apparently enjoying his investment. Billionaire-watchers have sighted him holidaying offshore with actor Mel Gibson and crooner Billy Joel.

But what do billionaires do when they can’t find an aging celebrity to join them aboard? They rent their boats out, says Superyacht World — discreetly, of course, through charter agencies that never reveal the boat’s actual owner.

But sometimes that identity does slip out. Murdoch’s Rosehearty, an enterprising reporter has disclosed, charters for just under $300,000 per week. Murdoch’s “exceptionally solicitous staff” comes included in the fee.

Speaking of fees, Murdoch has launched a crusade to force Web surfers to pay for the newspaper articles they read online. One reason: His take-home last year from the News Corp. — the base of his media empire — dropped 14 percent to $27.5 million.

3: Mark Hurd

Computer printer ink, a high-tech financial analyst pointed out a few years ago, “costs more per drop than expensive perfume.” Mark Hurd, the CEO at Hewlett-Packard since 2005, wouldn’t have it any other way.

HP, under Hurd, has been busy squeezing every bit of revenue possible out of the printer ink cash cow. Last year, HP upped ink prices up at double the inflation rate. The typical $30 ink cartridge, SmartMoney reported this past June, costs $3 to make.

Hurd apparently enjoys cutting wages and jobs as much as raising prices. In May, he axed 6,000 workers off the HP payroll and cut paychecks for the survivors from 5 to 15 percent.

Hurd did take a 20 percent salary cut himself for 2009. But “salary” in 2008 only accounted for $1.45 million of Hurd’s $26.04 million in cash compensation. He took in another $7.9 million in new stock awards — and cleared still another $10.1 million cashing out previously awarded stock options.

Hurd’s CEO stint at HP has so far seen about 40,000 employees lose their jobs.

2: Richard Scott

Mike Snow, a regional health care executive, earlier this month recalled that evening a dozen years ago when his then-boss, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. CEO Richard Scott, revealed to Snow and the rest of the company’s top management that the FBI had just raided the firm’s El Paso office.

Scott defiantly declared the government had no case. Mike Snow and his fellow execs lustily applauded. Remembers Snow: “Like so many others that night, I drank the Kool-Aid.”

The federal government went on to indict key Columbia/HCA personnel for “bilking Medicare while simultaneously handing over kickbacks and perks to physicians who steered patients to its hospitals.” The company ended up pleading guilty to 14 felonies and paying $1.7 billion in criminal and civil fines.

The board of Columbia/HCA, then the nation’s biggest for-profit hospital chain, would go on to ease Scott out the door, but ever so gently. He left with a $10 million severance package and stock worth $300 million.

This past spring, Richard Scott burst back into the news, pouring more Kool-Aid as the moving force behind the year’s first media blitz designed to demonize the Obama administration’s drive for health care reform.

If President Obama ever gets his way, Scott warned in one ad that his multimillion campaign ran, bureaucrats will “decide the treatments you receive, the drugs you take, even the doctors you see.”

Scott’s ads would set the “Tea Party” tone for the year’s health care debate — and help leave tens of millions of Americans without affordable health care, a state of affairs that has never bothered Scott, originally a corporate attorney specializing in buyout deals.

As Scott used to rail back in his CEO days: “Do we have an obligation to provide health care for everybody? Where do we draw the line? Is any fast-food restaurant obligated to feed everyone who shows up?”

1: Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison appeared on our “greediest” list last year. He may appear every year. No one may better personify, personally and professionally, the self-absorption, arrogance, and insensitivity that separates the merely greedy from the greediest.

In 2008, Ellison, the CEO of Oracle business software, contested the $166.3 million tax appraisal on his Northern California estate. The assessment appeals panel gave him a $3 million tax refund in a ruling that will cost the local school system an annual $250,000, the cost of hiring and supplying three teachers.

Ellison, the holder of a $27 billion fortune, spent a good bit of 2009 sparing no expense to build a yacht speedy enough to win next year’s America’s Cup, the world’s top sailing race. His new racing yacht has a $10-million mast “18-stories tall and sails large enough to cover a baseball infield.” Some 30 designers and scientists spent 130,000 hours putting the vessel together.

For more casual water fun, Ellison takes to the seas on his 453-foot mega yacht, the Rising Sun, a boat he co-owns with Hollywood mogul David Geffen. This five-story little ship boasts 82 rooms and a basketball court that doubles as a helicopter pad. The construction cost in 2004: $200 million.

On the business side, Ellison did his best in 2009 to top the $557 million he took home as Oracle’s CEO in 2008. His magic formula: Ellison’s a serial merger. He buys companies, takes their customers, and fires their workers. His top 2009 gobble-up: Silicon Valley’s Sun Microsystems.

The Sun merger, analysts believe, will almost certainly end up eliminating more jobs than the 5,000 positions lost when Oracle bought out rival PeopleSoft.

And did we mention the dividends? Oracle this past spring announced plans to pay out its first dividend. The announcement, CNBC estimated, meant a $57.5 million quarterly check for Ellison in May and another $230 million in dividend checks over the next 12 months.

In 2009, the old Silicon Valley joke still rang true: “What’s the difference between God and Larry Ellison? Answer: God doesn’t think he’s Larry Ellison.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality.

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