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Cassano Hearing Echoes Problems with James Cole

Bea Edwards, July 01, 2010

The public finally got a look at the trio who ran AIG aground before the bailout in 2008 when they appeared before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission yesterday. Joseph Cassano, Martin Sullivan and Robert Lewis seemed defiant and pained, still stunned and humiliated, respectively. The New York Times articles (here and here) and the questioning yesterday explain the sheepishness and shame on display with the AIG executives who testified. At AIG-FP (Financial Products), Cassano had encumbered the AIG holding company with enormous uncapitalized and unhedged long-term risk based on a single market trend: the upswing in US housing prices. This is like betting your house that one horse will win the Derby because it’s been winning up until now. In this case, we now know that the horse was feeling queasy by 2005, so why Cassano did this remains unclear. Based on yesterday’s testimony, neither Sullivan nor Lewis ever asked him.

What is clear is that AIG-FP under Cassano had inexplicable corporate autonomy, even after senior management knew that he was sinking the ship. By 2006, AIG-FP had stopped insuring CDSs (credit default swaps) based on mortgage-backed securities because even the “experts” working for Cassano knew the deals were rotten. These guys were careful to keep this to themselves, however, and James Cole, the Independent Consultant installed at AIG by the SEC and the Justice Department to review AIG-FP transactions from 2000 – 2005, failed to spot it. Part of the reason for the blind spot that affected Cole is explained by the recommendations for compliance (p87) that he himself set out in 2007. When Cole recommended the establishment of a Committee to oversee the transacting of derivatives, which would have encompassed oversight of the CDSs insured by AIG-FP, he wrote:

The Derivatives Committee should be responsible for providing an independent review of proposed derivative transactions or programs entered into by all AIG entities other than AIG Financial Products Corp. (“AIG-FP”).

These recommendations, made in September 2007, show Cole’s explicit intention to keep his eye off the ball, even though, a 2004 deferred prosecution agreement between AIG, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the SEC and the New York State Insurance Commission– placed him at AIG to review potentially fraudulent AIG-FP transactions.

Cole, of course, has now been nominated to serve as the Deputy Attorney General at DOJ, where he would help to decide who should and should not be prosecuted. Cole does not appear to be the ideal candidate for this slot, based on his performance at AIG.

Bea Edwards is the International Reform Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.