Now that the Obama Administration has started sacking CEOs, MoveOn asking its 3.2 million members to petition Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to issue Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis’s pink slip next, in a move that appears to be related to the union pension fund-led proxy battle to get bank shareholders to vote him out at the annual meeting later this month. Yesterday Stephen Lerner, a division director of the Service Employees International Union, went on Ed Schultz’s new MSNBC show to lambaste the $35 million in pay Lewis had taken home over the past two years when the average teller makes $21,000 a year.
But antipathy toward Lewis is bipartisan. Yesterday Jerry Finger, who manages a Houston-based pension fund and contributed more than $35,000 to Republicans last year, added his 1.1 million votes to the cause, along with a flashy red, white and blue website encouraging fellow shareholders to “vote for change.”
But is Lewis really the worst? If any unforgivably reckless institution on the “too big to fail” list deserves more pushing around from the feds, it’s Citigroup. And today the influential analyst Meredith Whitney, a relentless critic of the banking sector, praised Lewis and said he should keep his job.
As Lewis himself readily concedes, he made a lot of mistakes when he agreed to acquire Merrill Lynch in a last-minute deal inked the week after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. He overpaid, he underestimated the avarice of the firm’s seemingly mild-mannered CEO John Thain, who spent more than a million dollars renovating his office, had the gall to ask Lewis for a $40 million bonus and rushed billions of dollars in bonuses to bankers weeks before the firm posted an extra $15 billion in losses for the quarter. And when the episode became a subject of embarrassment for Bank of America — and outrage for the public — he laid the blame on Thain, but balked at cooperating with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s probe into the matter.
In one way, the most damning charges against Lewis are blog reports that he lied about needing to fly a company jet to testify before Congress because of a morning meeting when he was actually getting a haircut, and that he’s a regular at various Charlotte happy hour joints.
In public appearances Lewis has vascillated between bumbling and clueless; after bemoaning the restrictions of the TARP financing he demanded, he apologized today in an interview on Fox Business News:
“I haven’t really kind of thought through the three years to five years but they have been working, they have been providing liquidity and I think the Fed has been kind of a hero here in terms of providing the liquidity they have and getting interest rates down on mortgages.Which might have undone some damage for Lewis, had anyone at the Fed — or anywhere — been watching Fox Business News.