EXCLUSIVE: AIG chiefs pressed to donate to Dodd

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EXCLUSIVE:

As Democrats prepared to take control of Congress after the 2006 elections, a top boss at the insurance giant American International Group Inc. told colleagues that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd was seeking re-election donations and he implored company executives and their spouses to give.

The message in the Nov. 17, 2006, e-mail from Joseph Cassano, AIG Financial Products chief executive, was unmistakable: Mr. Dodd was “next in line” to be chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees the insurance industry, and he would “have the opportunity to set the committee’s agenda on issues critical to the financial services industry.

“Given his seniority in the Senate, he will also play a key role in the Democratic Majority’s leadership,” Mr. Cassano wrote in the message, obtained by The Washington Times.

Mr. Dodd’s campaign quickly hit pay dirt, collecting more than $160,000 from employees and their spouses at the AIG Financial Products division (AIG-FP) in Wilton, Conn., in the days before he took over as the committee chairman in January 2007. Months later, the senator transferred the donations to jump-start his 2008 presidential bid, which later failed.

Now, two years later, Mr. Dodd has emerged as a central figure in the government’s decision to let executives at the now-failing AIG collect more than $218 million in bonuses, according to the Connecticut attorney general - even as the company was receiving billions of dollars in assistance from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). He acknowledged that he slipped a provision into legislation in February that authorized the bonuses, but said the Treasury Department asked him to do it.

The decision has generated national outrage and put the Obama administration into the position of trying to collect the bonuses after they were distributed. It also endangers Mr. Dodd’s re-election chances in 2010 as his popularity tumbles in his home state.

Despite all the claims that Washington has changed, the tale of Mr. Dodd’s lucrative political ties to AIG is a fresh reminder that special interests continue to use donations and fundraising to sow good will with powerful lawmakers like Mr. Dodd.

“The message seems clear: The boss says I want you to support the senator,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which studies political fundraising and ethics. “And I think the employees got the message.”

Representatives for Mr. Dodd did not answer specific questions about AIG’s fundraising, but spokesman Bryan DeAngelis said in a statement: “Senator Dodd´s fundraising has always been above board, transparent and in accordance with campaign finance rules.

“As he said [earlier this month], contributions received from any individual who accepted these bonuses from AIG last week will be donated to charity. And last fall, he made the decision to no longer accept contributions from [political action committees] of companies receiving TARP money.”

Officials at AIG-FP in Wilton referred inquiries to the firm’s New York headquarters, where spokesman Mark Herr said he had been on the job only three weeks and had no information about the e-mail or the campaign contributions to Mr. Dodd.

Mr. Cassano’s Washington attorney, F. Joseph Warin, did not return messages left on his voice mail or e-mail.

Mr. Dodd’s plight also signals that the actions taken by lawmakers after they receive big political donations are being scrutinized by an increasingly distrustful public. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found Mr. Dodd lagging 43 percent to 42 percent behind former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican who plans to challenge Mr. Dodd, in a hypothetical race.

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