How Badly Must a C.E.O. Behave Before His Pay Is Clawed Back? – The New York Times

Gretchen Morgenson writes in the New York Times:

[There is] a lawsuit unfolding in Delaware Chancery Court…that involves the former chief executive of United and a prime figure in the Bridgegate scandal that has dogged Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. The facts of the case reflect a similar disdain for United’s shareholders by the corporate board members who are supposed to serve them.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the refusal by United’s directors to retrieve any of the $28.6 million received by Jeffery A. Smisek, United’s former chief executive, when he was defenestrated in 2015 amid a federal corruption investigation….In a litigation demand, [The City of Tamarac, Fla., Firefighters Pension Trust Fund] requested that the company’s board claw back the severance pay given to the executives who took part in the bribery scandal. By doing so, United’s board would correct its breach of fiduciary duty and prevent “the unjust enrichment” of company executives.

Seems fair enough. But United’s board has refused. Its justification for not recouping the pay is, well, pretty rich.

In a letter to the pension fund, a lawyer for United explained that it would harm the company to give the board “unfettered discretion to recoup compensation” in cases involving wrongdoing. “Where such discretion is out of step with industry norms,” the letter said, it would “make it difficult for United to recruit and retain top talent, particularly at the senior management level.”

In other words, clawing back severance awarded to executives amid a bribery investigation is not industry practice. And if United pursued such a recovery, the airline would be an outlier and unable to hire good people.

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