Ousted AIG chief to take the 5th today

Greenberg faces queries on General Re dealings

Buffett says he told all he knew

April 12, 2005|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

NEW YORK - Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, ousted last month as chief executive officer of American International Group Inc., will invoke his legal right to avoid self-incrimination when he testifies today before investigators probing the insurer's accounting.

The former CEO will use his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions from prosecutors examining a four-year-old reinsurance transaction with Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s General Re Corp. that AIG now says improperly distorted its finances. Berkshire's Warren E. Buffett appeared before investigators yesterday, emerging from an interview having "told them everything I know," he said.

Greenberg, 79, came to the decision not to testify after New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Securities and Exchange Commission refused his request to delay the deposition, his attorney, David Boies, said in a statement.

There are thousands of documents linked to the investigation that Greenberg has not yet seen, Boies said. He also said Greenberg's requests to delay the testimony so he could review documents were refused.

"I am willing to accept responsibility and to account for the performance of my duties, but I believe that good order and fairness require that I have an adequate opportunity to be advised of the issues to be investigated and to my alleged involvement therein," Greenberg said in a statement.

Buffett spent about five hours at the SEC's offices in the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan yesterday before emerging shortly after 2 p.m. Buffett, 74, crossed the street amid a crowd of reporters, said, "I told them everything I know," and then drove off in a black car.

New York-based AIG said March 30 that improper accounting may have inflated its net worth by as much as $1.7 billion over 14 years. Spitzer told ABC News on Sunday that he has "powerful evidence" and that he may be moving toward a civil or criminal case against Greenberg.

AIG spokesman Chris Winans said the company continues to cooperate with investigators and declined to comment on Greenberg's decision.

"Statements that seem innocuous and harmless at this juncture may later serve as lethal weapons," said Christopher Bebel, a former federal prosecutor who practices law in Houston.

Darren Dopp, Spitzer's spokesman, didn't return phone calls. Robert Morvillo, Greenberg's criminal attorney, and SEC spokesman John Nester declined to comment. The Wall Street Journal reported Greenberg's plans yesterday.

Spitzer is focusing his AIG investigation on Greenberg, who stepped down as chairman and CEO last month after a reign of almost four decades. AIG "was a black box run with an iron fist by a CEO who did not tell the public the truth," Spitzer told ABC.

Shares of AIG rose 19 cents yesterday to close at $52.10 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Greenberg may have been tempted to ignore his safest option against the advice of his lawyers, said Rusty Hardin, a Houston attorney who represented Arthur Andersen LLP in its failed attempt to avoid obstruction of justice charges tied to Enron Corp.'s collapse.

The relevant accounting rules are debatable, and Greenberg would never have done the General Re transaction had he thought it was wrong, Boies said in an interview April 7.

"For people like Greenberg who don't believe they have done anything wrong, your first inclination is to tell everyone anything they might want to know," Hardin said. "That isn't always the wisest thing until you know what the other side is contending."

Spitzer and the SEC last year began probing nontraditional or finite risk reinsurance, a type of reinsurance that became more popular in the 1990s and plays on the boundary between financing and insurance.

The accounting on finite risk can be abused if the insurer classifies what is essentially a low-cost loan from the reinsurer as reinsurance, thereby artificially reducing its liabilities. In the General Re transaction, AIG said March 30 that it shouldn't have been accounted for as reinsurance because there was no risk involved.

Investigators are also probing transactions with offshore reinsurers. Deals with Barbados-based reinsurer Union Excess Reinsurance Co. alone may have inflated AIG's net worth by $1.1 billion, the company said last month.

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