A top insurance company as the new Enron?

An accounting probe at AIG worries Wall Street, and involves some of America's richest men.

American business is facing yet another major scandal involving more accounting shenanigans.

But, this scandal has the potential to cause tsunami-sized damage: It involves a highly respected insurance company, American International Group (AIG) - which is part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average - which has now admitted to $1.7 billion in improper accounting. And, it has enveloped some legends in the financial arena: Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, forced out as chairman of AIG, and Warren Buffet, the Omaha stock market guru, who will be questioned about his possible involvement.

Because AIG is so massive and important to the financial world, regulators will have to tread carefully. The company's main business is providing reinsurance, that is, it insures insurance companies. This helps the industry to spread its risk among many large and financially sound companies so a single event does not become a financial disaster for one company.

Also, because of AIG's huge size, lawyers don't think the government will bring a criminal charge against the company as it did for Arthur Andersen, Enron's accountant. The criminal charge was a death sentence for the accountant.

"There is an increased reluctance to bring criminal charges that ultimately have the effect of killing a company that otherwise employs a lot of innocent people and has lots of value to it," says Michael Gass, an expert on SEC enforcement at Palmer & Dodge, a Boston law firm. "Instead, there is an increased focus on the individuals responsible."

Past lessons

If the past is any indication of the future, the government will work its way up the food chain at the company. A host of executives, including the chief financial officer, have already resigned or been forced out. The government will try to pressure them to provide evidence against higher officials, particularly Mr. Greenberg.

"I would be shocked if nothing criminal comes out of this," says Mr. Gass. "The concept that there is a $1.7 billion fraud on the stock holders and not a criminal action is ridiculous."

Global investigation

The investigation is likely to also expand overseas. AIG has operations offshore, particularly in Bermuda where it has used a company to provide financial rewards for its executives. "It's common for insurance companies to use offshore companies and not be public about it," says Gass. "There is nothing illegal about it unless there is misuse."

So far, it's expected Mr. Buffet will be questioned as a possible witness, not necessarily a target. Buffet is chairman of a company called Berkshire Hathaway, which owns a company called General Re, which provides reinsurance. It agreed to a $500 million AIG deal that is now under scrutiny. Investigators are now trying to determine what Buffet knew and when he knew it.

"With the icon of integrity and master of morality even mentioned with AIG causes some people to ask, 'Is everyone now suspect?'" asks Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at Standard & Poor's in New York.

The scandal links two of the world's richest men. According to Forbes Magazine, Buffet is the world's second-richest person with assets of $41 billion. Greenberg is ranked 132 in the world and 59th in the US with assets of $3.1 billion. Recently, two of Greenberg's sons, both executives in the insurance business, have also been tarnished by scandal.

Washington connections

Greenberg is well-known in Washington where he known for raising large amounts of money. Greenberg was one of the President Bush's "Rangers" which means he personally raked in more than $200,000 for the reelection campaign. At the same time, he is also known for his access to members of the cabinet and Congress. This access has paid-off as the administration has often supported Greenberg on a number of issues ranging from access to China to terrorism insurance.

However, Gass says the company's influence is not likely to extend to the investigation. "No one would take the political risk of terminating a criminal investigation assuming they have the power," he says.

Greenberg and AIG have further expanded their reach through the use of the $5 billion Starr Foundation, named after the founder of the company Cornelius Vander Starr. It supports influential groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Chamber Foundation, associated with the US Chamber of Commerce.

Before its legal troubles, AIG had begun an advertising campaign to become more well-known to Americans. Its most recent logo is "We know money." And, it brags it is the financial organization to choose for your "great-great-great-great-great grandchild." Now, lawyers expect it is likely to be fighting class-action lawsuits and irate regulators as it battles to survive.

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