Judge rules against Merrill on keeping bonuses secret

bonuses(NEW YORK) A New York state judge ruled Wednesday afternoon that New York’s attorney general could disclose the names of Merrill Lynch executives who received 2008 bonuses as part of his investigation of the firm.

“The record does not support the intervenors’ claim that the employee compensation information is a trade secret,” Justice Bernard J. Fried of New York State Supreme Court wrote, referring to Merrill and its corporate parent, Bank of America.

Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has been demanding the names of Merrill’s 200 most highly paid employees, as part of an investigation into Bank of America’s acquisition of the firm, which was completed at the beginning of the year. The names could be released as early as Thursday.

Lawyers for Merrill and Bank of America argued last Friday that the names should not be disclosed publicly, since they were as much a trade secret as the recipe for Carvel ice cream.

“I conclude there is no legal basis for the proposed petitions to quash, fix conditions or modify subpoena and for a protective order,” Judge Fried said in his ruling.

“Today’s decision in the Bank of America case is a victory for taxpayers,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “Let the sun shine in. Justice Fried’s decision will now lift the shroud of secrecy surrounding the $3.6 billion in premature bonuses Merrill Lynch rushed out in early December. Taxpayers demand and deserve transparency and now they will finally get it.”

Merrill employees were collectively given billions of dollars in bonuses shortly before its sale to Bank of America closed. Around the same time, Bank of America learned that Merrill’s fourth-quarter loss would be much larger than expected, and the shortfall forced Bank of America’s to go to the government to seek more financial aid.

Among other things, Mr. Cuomo has alleged that Merrill misled Congress about the timing of the bonuses.

As part of his investigation, Mr. Cuomo’s office has interviewed Kenneth D. Lewis, Bank of America’s chief executive; John Finnegan, the chief executive of Chubb, who headed Merrill’s compensation committee; and John A. Thain, Merrill’s former chief executive.

Bank of America has tried to prevent the names from being made public, arguing that it would cause the company “grave harm,” making it easier for rivals to poach employees and invading workers’ privacy.

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