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 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 good ideas.
During the 2003-06 boom, the three agencies that supervise most U.S. banks - 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.
Because most bank inspection records are not public and the government blacked out many of the employee names before releasing the bonus data, it's impossible to determine how many auditors got bonuses despite working on major banks that failed.
Regulators says it's unfair to use those missteps, seen with the benefit of hindsight, to suggest any of the bonuses was 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."