Apparently, the supreme sanctity of employment contracts applies only to some types of employees but not others. Either way, the Obama administration’s claim that nothing could be done about the AIG bonuses because AIG has solid, sacred contractual commitments to pay them is, for so many reasons, absurd on its face.
As any lawyer knows, there are few things more common – or easier -- than finding legal arguments that call into question the meaning and validity of contracts. Every day, commercial courts are filled with litigations between parties to seemingly clear-cut agreements. Particularly in circumstances as extreme as these, there are a litany of arguments and legal strategies that any lawyer would immediately recognize to bestow AIG with leverage either to be able to avoid these sleazy payments or force substantial concessions.
Since the contracts are secret and we’re apparently just supposed to rely on the claims of AIG and Treasury Department lawyers, it’s impossible to identify these arguments specifically. But there are almost certainly viable claims to be asserted that the contracts were induced via fraud or that the bonus-demanding executives themselves violated their contracts. Independently, it’s inconceivable that there aren’t substantial counterclaims that AIG could assert against any executives suing to obtain these bonuses, a threat which, by itself, provides substantial leverage to compel meaningful concessions. Many of these executives were, after all, the very ones responsible for the cataclysmic losses.
The only way a company like AIG throws up its hands from the start and announces that there is simply nothing to be done is if they are eager to make these payments. One might expect AIG to do so -- they haven't exactly proven themselves to be paragons of business ethics -- but the fact that Obama officials are also insisting that nothing can be done (even while symbolically and pointlessly pretending to join in the populist outrage over these publicly-funded "retention payments") is what is most notable here.