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Bailed-Out Firms Post Expense Rules
$4 In-Flight Movie? You're on Your Own.

By Tomoeh Murakami Tse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 11 -- Chrysler Financial employees traveling on business can no longer be reimbursed for lunch on trips that don't require an overnight stay. If flying on business, they must travel coach if the flight is less than four hours. Tips to baggage handlers shouldn't exceed $2 per bag. The $4 paid for the in-flight movie? Not reimbursable.

The company's new expense rules, posted on its Web site Friday, are among a handful of policies that have been made public so far as hundreds of companies receiving federal rescue funds scramble to meet a deadline Monday to put in place an "excessive or luxury expenditures" policy.

Under rules issued by the Treasury Department in June, the boards of directors of companies receiving federal assistance must adopt company-wide policies on luxury expenditures -- including entertainment, office renovations and air travel -- and make them available online.

First, There Was Outrage

The requirement was part of the new restrictions on executive compensation in the $787 billion stimulus bill signed into law by President Obama in February, at the peak of a populist outcry over billions in bonuses paid to executives at companies that received taxpayer assistance.

Merrill Lynch's then-chief executive John Thain was pilloried in January for spending $1.2 million to renovate his office, including $87,000 for an area rug, even as the investment bank faced billions in additional losses and was acquired by Bank of America. Northern Trust was sharply criticized for sponsoring a golf tournament with lavish side events and Detroit's Big Three auto executives received a public scolding from lawmakers for flying private jets to a hearing in Washington.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The policies adopted so far vary greatly.

The law requires that the companies have a policy regarding luxury expenses and largely does not dictate the content of the policies. It does say that prohibited expenses and those needing prior approval must be identified, and it mandates prompt internal reporting of any violations.

While some are barely a page long, the policy adopted by Chrysler Financial, among the seven companies under the greatest government scrutiny after receiving multiple infusions of taxpayer funds, goes to lengths to define acceptable spending.

Of those seven firms -- Bank of America, Citigroup, American International Group, Chrysler, Chrysler Financial, General Motors and GMAC -- only Chrysler Financial and Bank of America had made their policies available as of Friday.

Complicated

Chrysler Financial details what type of rental car employees should drive while on business trips (mid-size), how to calculate reimbursable gas mileage on trips combining business and personal purposes, and the circumstances under which it is permissible to use the phone in your hotel room. The 15-page policy comes with two appendixes, one listing "unallowable" expenses (country club fees, hotel frequent-guest programs, birthday cakes and cards, shoeshines) and limits on tips (up to 20 percent of total bill, excluding tax, for room service, up to $2 for buffet dining, $5 for doorman, no tip for concierge).

In comparison, Bank of America's policy is much less detailed. Regarding events, the bank says location, venue, food selections and entertainment are determined based on the revenue-generating potential, among other factors. On office renovations, the policy defines as excessive any materials that are "unreasonably above and beyond standard." Reviews for exceptions, the policy says, "could potentially be escalated to senior management for approval."

Citigroup and AIG said they would post their policies Monday.

"The company has established policies, practices, and procedures to operate on a cost-effective basis in the ordinary course of our day-to-day business," GMAC spokeswoman Gina Proia said, adding that the company will adopt a luxury-expenditures policy by the Monday deadline.

GM says it will make its luxury expense policy available by Oct. 8, the deadline under the company's interpretation of the Treasury rules. Chrysler says it has already posted its expense policy on its internal Web site and that it would put the policy on its public Web site Monday.

Not So Complicated

Some policies are simple. Carver Bancorp, a community bank in Manhattan, says simply that the company's directors and employees are "precluded from engaging in excessive or luxury expenditures" and that employees who engage in spending deemed "extravagant" by the compensation committee will be subject to discipline.

A Carver spokesman said that the bank's policy complies with the spirit and letter of the requirements and that its expenses, as a small community bank, are limited by necessity.

The Cap Approach

Others have set ceilings on certain expenditures. According to the four-page policy provided by Whitney National Bank, a top executive must preapprove any meeting, event or certain type of travel that exceeds $10,000. Those exceeding $25,000 must be accompanied by a report making a business case for the expense. Whitney has received $300 million in taxpayer funds.

NBRS Financial, a Maryland community bank, was among the first to make public its luxury-expense policy, which requires that holiday parties should be held locally and should not cost the company more than an average day's pay per employee.

Jack Goldstein, chairman and chief executive of NBRS, said Friday that the 85-employee company could have a party budget of $13,000. The holiday party last year, Goldstein said, cost $4,250 and was held at a local restaurant owned by a banking customer.

"We wanted to pay him so he can pay us," Goldstein said.

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