Last week I ate for the first time at the high-profile New York restaurant Nobu, haunt of the rich and famous, and co-owned by actor Robert DeNiro.
And while try as I might to spot somebody famous inside the restaurant, ironically, it was outside, where I saw my celebrity of the day — former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard “Dick” Grasso hurrying along with an unidentified female companion.
Now while I had no idea where he was going, I was fairly sure he wasn’t shopping for a birthday gift for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
It seems the two are far from being on cordial terms.
In his not-so-veiled pre-campaign to become the next governor of New York, Spitzer has scared a lot of people in the financial community and Wall Street, with his office’s full frontal attacks on deserving targets such as mutual fund companies following the recent scandals over late trading.
Grasso has been in Spitzer’s crosshairs for some time now, particularly since his exorbitant pay package, which nearly totaled $200 million became public knowledge.
The ensuing outcry was so deafening that Grasso left the exchange in September.
Not good enough says Spitzer. Grasso must return some $120 million in retirement benefits, or he and his board which approved the deal will be sued.
At last report, the two parties were in settlement talks (wouldn’t you like to have a tape of that discussion?), but it appears as though Grasso will not go down without a fight.
And make no mistake, Spitzer will give him one.
A Spitzer-led lawsuit would accuse Grasso and the NYSE board members — who rubber-stamped his pay package — of `unjust enrichments,’ an amorphous legalese that intones they didn’t quite meet their fiscal responsibilities under New York State non-profit laws.
Now, here’s where I’m sort of straddling the fence.
Is Grasso’s package absurd? Of course it is, in fact, it borders on obscene. But then to be fair, so does Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Peyton Manning’s just-inked a multi-year $98 million contract. I doubt whether he’s going to be asked to return any of that money if the team finishes below .500 over the next several seasons.
But I would not equate Grasso’s largesse with those accumulated by those folks currently under indictment over galactic frauds such as Enron and WorldCom. His board approved it. Period. Now whether they need a remedial lesson on prudent compensation levels might be a discussion for another day.
Since Grasso’s exit the NYSE has adopted a series of reforms, one of which was to divide the responsibilities of chairman and chief executive and to appoint an in-house regulator.
And as for Spitzer, his vigilance over Wall Street malfeasance is to be commended, but New York has far larger legal battles to be fought than suing Dick Grasso.
He needs to learn that if he ever hopes to take up residence in Albany.
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