Week before last, a Tennessee journalist, George Poague of the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, surveyed the Tennessee power structure in light of the nation's current economic crisis, and, by way of noting the bad aroma now attaching to the financial sector, had this to say: "We've read about the Merrill Lynch CEO (since fired) who spent more than a million bucks redecorating his office. That included a trash can costing $1,400. Just before Christmas, he gave billions in bonuses to Merrill executives — their reward for destroying the company."
From there Poague, pointing out that U.S. automakers had a harder time coaxing bailout money from Congress than had Wall Street, went on to excoriate U.S. senator Bob Corker for taking positions which he deemed detrimental to the domestic auto industry and concluded: "When Corker showed up at the Detroit auto show last month, autoworkers said the senator should receive a pay cut or should have his job outsourced. See how you like it, Bob! That made me laugh. At the very least, Corker should be given a buyout and replaced. Is Harold Ford Jr. still available?"
Connecting the dots reveals an irony not touched upon by Poague: Included in the lucky Merrill executives getting those pre-Christmas bonues might well have been Ford himself, a ranking Merrill Lynch executive since February 2007 and one so highly regarded that Bank of America, which absorbed the fallen brokerage, kept the former Memphis congressman on as a rainmaker.
Indeed, Ford reportedly was the featured speaker two weeks ago at a hedge fund group on behalf of the Merrill Lynch division. And a googling of his activities on behalf of the brokerage since his initial appointment (some three months after losing a U.S. Senate bid) as a Merrill Lynch "vice chairman and senior policy advisor" shows a vast and varied itinerary — including featured spots as a Merrill Lynch spokesperson on panels organized by the likes of the prestigious Brookings Institution.
Ford continues to be a hot property on the political market as well. His name is continually put forth on lists of potential Tennessee Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2010, and any number of traditional party brokers are angling to get him to make that race.
As of now, Ford has not closed the door on running for governor, though those who know him wonder if he would be willing to undertake an administrative job confining himself to the Volunteer State and to forgo his current vistas, which — besides the Merrill Lynch position, estimated by the New York Post to pay him $3 million annually — include heading up the Democratic Leadership Council, appearing as an analyst on national political affairs at MSNBC, and maintaining a relationship with Vanderbilt University as a featured adjunct professor.
And, if he did choose to make a gubernatorial run, how would his Merrill Lynch status play?
Something of a storm erupted weekend before last when The New York Times reported on the list of Merrill Lynch bonuses and the apparent determination of New York state attorney general Andrew Cuomo to do something about what he saw as wretched excess.
Noting that, just in advance of its absorption by Bank of America last year, the failing brokerage gave out some $3.6 billion in bonuses to its executives, Cuomo, who is conducting an investigation into executive compensation for possible legal action, said this in a letter to U.S. Representative Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services: "Merrill Lynch's decision to secretly and prematurely award approximately $3.6 billion in bonuses, and Bank of America's apparent complicity in it, raise serious and disturbing questions. By December 8, 2008, Merrill and presumably Bank of America must have been aware that the fourth quarter and yearly earnings results were disastrous. Indeed, on January 16, 2009, the companies announced that in the fourth quarter alone Merrill Lynch has lost $15.31 billion, and more than $27 billion for the year.
"In the face of these losses, federal taxpayers were forced to help Bank of America acquire Merrill. Thus, Bank of America also announced on January 16, 2009, that the federal government would invest $20 billion in the deal and provide $188 billion in protection against further losses primarily from the Merrill Lynch portfolio. These investments were in addition to the previous $25 billion in TARP funding that taxpayers had given to Bank of America."
Cuomo provided figures showing that some 700 Merrill Lynch executives had received at least $1 million in year-end bonuses, which, as he noted to Frank, seemed rushed ahead of the company's usual first-of-year schedule so as to benefit from the then pending financial bailout money.
But those $1 million bonuses were for the low end of the 700 recipients. Ranking Merrill Lynch executives got more, much more.
Let Cuomo tell it: • The top four bonus recipients received a combined $121 million; • The next four bonus recipients received a combined $62 million; • The next six bonus recipients received a combined $66 million; • Fourteen individuals received bonuses of $10 million or more and combined they received more than $250 million; • 20 individuals received bonuses of $8 million or more; • 53 individuals received bonuses of $5 million or more; • 149 individuals received bonuses of $3 million or more; • Overall, the top 149 bonus recipients received a combined $858 million; • 696 individuals received bonuses of $1 million or more.
Several Tennesseans familiar with Ford's activities at Merrill Lynch professed no doubt that he was among the beneficiaries of the bonus payout and little doubt, for that matter, that he was among those receiving relatively substantial sums.
At some point, Cuomo's list will be made public — with or without Ford's name attached to a dollar sign. The difference could be crucial for the political future of the charismatic former congressman from Memphis.
Another political race is not the only potential opportunity for Ford. As we noted in the Flyer's January 15th issue, Ford may be in line to become commerce secretary in the Obama administration. Chuck Todd of NBC and MSNBC is the latest to report such a possibility, and, as Todd notes, the former Memphis congressman and U.S. Senate candidate and current multitasking national celebrity has many points to recommend him. Notes Todd:
"On paper, Ford checks a lot of boxes for an easy-to-confirm nominee for this post: He's a pro-business Democrat (remember, this is commerce secretary so the job is to be a promoter of business); he's a former member of the Congressional Black Caucus (you'll recall this whole kerfuffle over control of the census under a Judd Gregg-led Commerce Department was started by complaints from the CBC); and he's a practiced spokesperson on TV (the Geithner rollout this week is a reminder that the administration doesn't have enough solid media-savvy members of his team who can sell the administration's policies.)"
Todd also posits a potential caveat, however: "There is one, potential, gigantic problem: Ford's current place of employment: Merrill Lynch. Given the current views of Wall Street, Ford's nomination could come under immediate fire and he'd have to disclose exactly what his job was with Merrill Lynch and whether he was one of the 700-million-dollar bonus recipients before Merrill completed its sale to Bank of America in late 2008."
Todd's post on the MSNBC site came mere hours after the Flyer's first online mention of the Merrill Lynch matter. Though several readers — some friendly, some not — interpreted our post as an "attack" on Ford, it was nothing of the kind. Our article merely raised the same necessary conjecture as would Todd subsequently — on the site, mind you, of one of Ford's current employers, MSNBC.
So far Ford has not spoken on the matter, though at least two commenters locally professed to know, sans presenting any evidence, that Ford was not in fact a bonus recipient. And Todd, too, evidently heard from such persons, presumably better placed than those responding locally. As Todd said in an add-on Saturday morning:
"UPDATE: Ford's folks tell me that he never received a bonus in his time at Merrill Lynch nor was he involved in developing or selling anything having to do with mortgage securities. Ford's job was simply business development and advising clients on domestic or int'l issues. Bottom line: no one close to Ford believes he has a Merrill problem."
That may or may not be "the bottom line," but the Merrill Lynch bonus issue is certainly a line Ford will have to cross at some point in his vetting for a cabinet post or whatever other political or governmental position lies before him.