WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration tries to rein in sky-high executive compensation at firms that are getting billions in taxpayer funds, ousted General Motors Chief Executive Rick Wagoner is due to walk away with a pension and benefits that total $23 million.
Wagoner, whose company is on tap to get a nearly $30 billion bailout to help it restructure, is unaffected by the cap on compensation that's now levied on banks other financial firms and is expected to be extended to the automakers.
In tapping a successor to Wagoner, the Obama administration turned to another GM insider, but president and operating chief Frederick "Fritz" Henderson could see his pay fall to $500,000. Since 2006, Henderson has earned total compensation of $14.5 million, according to company reports.
Wagoner's pension payments are being preserved even as those of rank-and-file GM workers are more at risk after President Barack Obama suggested that bankruptcy is a way to save the company.
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The Obama administration in early February put a $500,000 cap on executive compensation for any financial institutions that receive Treasury Department aid during the current economic crisis. The restrictions also prohibit bonuses, except restricted stock that vests after taxpayers have been fully repaid.
Administration officials, who weren't authorized to speak on the record, said Monday that similar restrictions will apply to GM and Chrysler if a restructuring plan gives them more federal money.
Wagoner's pay was exempted because the limits didn't apply retroactively and initially were limited to financial institutions. According to GM's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, he earned $14.4 million in total compensation in 2007 and $5.4 million in 2008, even though most of his income was tied to the company's performance, which was dismal.
Wagoner had agreed to work for a salary of $1 this year, while Henderson took a 30 percent cut from his $1.7 million salary in 2008. GM executives have received no bonuses for the past three years because those awards were tied to the performance of the company's stock, which has plummeted, closing at $2.70 a share on Monday.
Despite being forced to resign, Wagoner, a 32-year GM veteran, is slated to receive $22.1 million in pension benefits paid over his remaining years, $535,000 in deferred compensation and $367,000 in vested performance awards, according to GM's current annual report. Wagoner, 56, became the company's president in 2000 and its CEO in 2003.
Under the terms of the government's $13.4 billion in loans to GM last fall, Wagoner couldn't receive a severance package — often dubbed a "golden parachute" — upon being forced to quit.
GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said there's no agreement "that would provide him with any special benefits upon severance."
"However, specifics on any compensation entitled to, or actually paid to Mr. Wagoner are still being reviewed," Wilkinson said.
Henderson, a 50-year-old Detroit native, took a similar path to Wagoner's to the top at the nation's biggest automaker.
He joined GM in 1984 as a senior financial analyst and rose through the ranks, overseeing the automaker's financial arm and one of its in-house parts suppliers in the 1990s. In 1997, he followed in Wagoner's footsteps by taking over the company's Brazil operations, became head of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East in 2000 and GM's European operations in 2004. He was named president and operating chief a year ago.
Asked on CNBC whether Henderson represented change, given his long tenure at GM, senior White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee waffled.
"The result the president is looking for is dramatic change in the organization," he said. "The issue is, we needed a new face and we needed to go in a new direction."
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.)
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