Grand Theft Auto (Greg Palast)

by Chris Sturr | June 04, 2009

Greg Palast’s take on the GM bankruptcy:

Grand Theft Auto: How Stevie the Rat bankrupted GM

by Greg Palast
Monday, June 1, 2009

They may be crying about General Motors’ bankruptcy today. But dumping 40,000 of the last 60,000 union jobs into a mass grave won’t spoil Jamie Dimon’s day.

Dimon is the CEO of JP Morgan Chase bank. While GM workers are losing their retirement health benefits, their jobs, their life savings; while shareholders are getting zilch and many creditors getting hosed, a few privileged GM lenders—led by Morgan and Citibank—expect to get back 100% of their loans to GM, a stunning $6 billion.

The way these banks are getting their $6 billion bonanza is stone cold illegal.

I smell a rat.

Stevie the Rat, to be precise. Steven Rattner, Barack Obama’s ‘Car Czar’—the man who essentially ordered GM into bankruptcy this morning.

When a company goes bankrupt, everyone takes a hit: fair or not, workers lose some contract wages, stockholders get wiped out and creditors get fragments of what’s left. That’s the law. What workers don’t lose are their pensions (including old-age health funds) already taken from their wages and held in their name.

But not this time. Stevie the Rat has a different plan for GM: grab the pension funds to pay off Morgan and Citi.

Here’s the scheme: Rattner is demanding the bankruptcy court simply wipe away the money GM owes workers for their retirement health insurance. Cash in the insurance fund would be replaced by GM stock. The percentage may be 17% of GM’s stock—or 25%. Whatever, 17% or 25% is worth, well … just try paying for your dialysis with 50 shares of bankrupt auto stock.

Yet Citibank and Morgan, says Rattner, should get their whole enchilada – $6 billion right now and in cash—from a company that can’t pay for auto parts or worker eye exams.

Preventive Detention for Pensions

So what’s wrong with seizing workers’ pension fund money in a bankruptcy? The answer, Mr. Obama, Mr. Law Professor, is that it’s illegal.

In 1974, after a series of scandalous take-downs of pension and retirement funds during the Nixon era, Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. ERISA says you can’t seize workers’ pension funds (whether monthly payments or health insurance) any more than you can seize their private bank accounts. And that’s because they are the same thing: workers give up wages in return for retirement benefits.

The law is darn explicit that grabbing pension money is a no-no. Company executives must hold these retirement funds as “fiduciaries.” Here’s the law, Professor Obama, as described on the government’s own web site under the heading, “Health Plans and Benefits”:

“The primary responsibility of fiduciaries is to run the plan solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits.”

Every business in America that runs short of cash would love to dip into retirement kitties, but it’s not their money any more than a banker can seize your account when the bank’s a little short. A plan’s assets are for the plan’s members only, not for Mr. Dimon nor Mr. Rubin.

Read the rest of the article.

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