US: 4 Charged With Fraud in Insurance Inquiry

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

Three former executives of the General Reinsurance Corporation and a former executive of American International Group have been indicted on charges that they fraudulently manipulated A.I.G.'s finances in order to mislead analysts and investors, the Justice Department said today.

A federal grand jury in Norfolk, Va., charged the four former executives with 13 counts of conspiracy, fraud and false statements.

The individuals named in the complaints, are Ronald E. Ferguson, General Re's former chief executive; Elizabeth A. Monrad, the former chief financial officer; and Robert Graham, the former general counsel. Christian M. Milton, the former head of A.I.G.'s reinsurance operations, was also charged.

Since early last year, federal prosecutors have been investigating General Re and A.I.G. for financial improprieties relating to transactions that artificially inflated A.I.G.'s reserves by $500 million in 2000 and 2001. Those are the transactions that are at the center of investigations by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"Each of the defendants was aware that the true purpose of the transactions was to permit A.I.G. to report and record loss reserves it did not really have to calm analyst criticism of A.I.G.'s reduction in loss reserves in the third quarter of 2000," the Justice Department said in a statement accompanying the indictment.

The New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, is also investigating improprieties at A.I.G. and has filed a civil fraud complaint against A.I.G. and its former chief executive, Maurice R. Greenberg, as well as the former chief financial officer, Howard I. Smith.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are also investigating whether Mr. Greenberg may have tried to manipulate A.I.G.'s share price shortly before he stepped down from the company's helm. Mr. Greenberg has denied any wrongdoing; A.I.G. has been expected to seek a settlement with federal and state regulators.

"I've heard nothing from the government," said Frederick P. Hafetz, a lawyer representing Mr. Milton, before the indictments were announced. "If indicted, Mr. Milton will vigorously contest the charges, and I'm confident he will be vindicated at trial."

Lawyers for Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Monrad did not return phone calls seeking comment on Wednesday. Mr. Graham could not be reached for comment.

The complaints raise questions about the potential impact on Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor who controls Berkshire Hathaway, which owns General Re, as well as on Mr. Greenberg. Mr. Buffett has not been charged with any wrongdoing in the investigation, and prosecutors have described him as nothing more than a cooperating witness. He could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

A lawyer representing Mr. Greenberg, Lee Wolosky, declined to comment on Wednesday.

The stocks of both companies dropped moderately today on the New York Stock Exchange, A.I.G. losing 80 cents, to close at $65.47, and Berkshire Hathaway losing $190, to $88,800.

In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission notified Joseph P. Brandon, General Re's current chief executive, that it planned to file a civil fraud complaint against him in connection with its wide-ranging investigation of insurance industry abuses. Mr. Brandon and his lawyer did not return phone calls seeking comment on Wednesday.

The S.E.C. also filed civil charges today, but it did not cite Mr. Brandon. Instead it named the four former insurance executives facing the criminal charges plus Christopher Garand, the former head of General Re's finite reinsurance operation.

The five were charged with securities fraud in connection with what the agency called a "sham transaction." They could face financial penalties, if convicted, and could be barred from becoming an executive or director of a public company.

A.I.G. has previously acknowledged that its transactions with General Re were improper. Regulators and prosecutors have characterized the deals as an effort by A.I.G. to make its financial statements appear more robust than they actually were. A.I.G. forced Mr. Greenberg, a strong-willed and detail-oriented executive, to retire last March because of improprieties associated with the transactions.

Mr. Ferguson served as General Re's chief executive from 1987 to 2001, when Mr. Brandon succeeded him. Last spring, General Re terminated a consulting contract it had with Mr. Ferguson.

Mr. Brandon briefed Mr. Buffett a few years ago on elements of the A.I.G. transactions, according to people involved in the investigation. But people with direct knowledge of the inquiry have said that no evidence has emerged indicating that Mr. Buffett knew about the structuring of questionable transactions before they occurred.

Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Ferguson started the transactions under investigation on Oct. 31, 2000. Mr. Ferguson mentioned the possibility of an A.I.G. transaction to Mr. Buffett during a brief telephone call a few days after that date, according to two people briefed about the call, who insisted on anonymity because they were involved in the investigation.

Mr. Ferguson called Mr. Buffett that November to discuss General Re's third-quarter earnings, these people said, and the A.I.G. deal, which was under consideration but not completed, was discussed only in passing.

According to an e-mail message Mr. Ferguson wrote on Nov. 6, 2000, he said that he asked Mr. Buffett whether the A.I.G. transaction "passed the NYT test," in a reference to The New York Times. According to a person who has read the message and described it over the telephone to a reporter, it stated that Mr. Buffett told Mr. Ferguson that the deal passed that test, "but not by a huge margin."

But a person with direct knowledge of the communications between Mr. Buffett and Mr. Ferguson said that no such e-mail message was ever sent to Mr. Buffett and that Mr. Buffett never passed judgment on the transaction's propriety.

Two people who have read the message, and are knowledgeable about Mr. Buffett's relationship with Mr. Ferguson, said that Mr. Ferguson might have inaccurately described his interactions with Mr. Buffett in his e-mail messages and memos to make it appear that he had cleared things with Mr. Buffett.

Berkshire said last spring that Mr. Buffett was never briefed on the nature or the structure of the transactions with A.I.G. Nor, the statement said, was Mr. Buffett briefed on "any improper use or purpose of the transactions."

Last June, two former senior General Re executives, Richard Napier and John Houldsworth, pleaded guilty to fraud charges filed by the United States attorney's office in Alexandria, Va. Both men acknowledged helping A.I.G. manipulate its accounts.

According to a person involved in the investigation, Mr. Houldsworth planned to provide evidence to prosecutors that might implicate Mr. Brandon. Mr. Houldsworth, who has an incentive to assist prosecutors so he can receive a lighter prison sentence, once oversaw a General Re office in Dublin that investigators have described as a processing center for sham insurance transactions.

Court documents say that Mr. Houldsworth had spoken with an unidentified General Re executive about the "reputational risk" involved in the A.I.G. deals but had been told that Mr. Ferguson, not Mr. Brandon, had personally approved them.

John Holusha contributed reporting for this article.

AMP Section Name:Financial Services, Insurance and Banking
  • 185 Corruption