WASHINGTON - As banks gambled on the risky mortgages that helped create the worst financial crisis in generations, the U.S. government handed out millions of dollars in bonuses to regulators at agencies that missed or ignored warning signs that the system was on the verge of a meltdown.
The bonuses, detailed in payroll data released to The Associated Press, are the latest evidence of the government's false sense of security during the go-go days of the financial boom. Just as bank executives got bonuses despite taking on dangerous amounts of risk, regulators got taxpayer-funded bonuses for doing "superior" work monitoring the banks.
The bonuses, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, were part of a reward program little known outside the government. Some government regulators got tens of thousands of dollars in perks, boosting their salaries by almost 25 percent.
Often, though, rewards amounted to just a few hundred dollars for employees who came up with good ideas.
During the 2003-06 boom, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency gave out at least $19 million in bonuses, records show.
Nearly all that money was spent recognizing "superior" performance. The largest share, more than $8.4 million, went to financial examiners, those employees and managers who scrutinize internal bank documents and sound the first alarms. Analysts, auditors, economists and criminal investigators also got awards.
After the meltdown, the government's internal investigators surveyed the wreckage of nearly 200 failed banks and repeatedly found that those regulators had not done enough.
"OTS did not react in a timely and forceful manner to certain repeated indications of problems," the Treasury Department's inspector general said of the thrift supervision office following the $2.5-billion collapse of NetBank, the first major bank failure of the economic crisis.
"OCC did not issue a formal enforcement action in a timely manner and was not aggressive enough in the supervision of ANB in light of the bank's rapid growth," the inspector general said of the comptroller after the $2.1-billion failure of ANB Financial National Association.
"OTS examiners did not identify or sufficiently address the core weaknesses that ultimately caused the thrift to fail until it was too late," the inspector general said about IndyMac, which in 2008 became one of the largest bank failures in history.
Regulators say it's unfair to use those missteps, seen with the benefit of hindsight, to suggest any of the bonuses were improper. "These are meant to motivate employees, have them work hard," thrift office spokesman William Ruberry said. "The economy has taken a downturn in recent years. I'm not sure that negates the hard work or good ideas of our employees."