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Jim Hightower: Who’ll Win the 2010 ‘Icky’ Award?

Oil giant BP gives Wall Street bankers a run for their money for the coveted corporate prize

It’s not nearly as well known as an Emmy or Grammy, but the annual awarding of the “Icky” often produces high drama, fierce competition and gasps of surprise. This coveted corporate prize goes to the group of CEOs whose performances in the past 12 months exhibit the best combination of greediness, goofiness and grossness.

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower

Of course, top Wall Street bankers were heavily favored to win the 2010 Icky hands-down, having claimed the prize for two years running and continuing to perform at a breathtaking level of hubris and narcissism. Their assertion early this year that they “deserved” the $140 billion in executive bonuses they grabbed for themselves was a stunner, causing even some of Wall Street’s former chieftains to gag at the excess. They looked like sure winners.

Last month, however — from out of nowhere — an upstart challenger for the Icky literally erupted onto the scene. On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and the top executives of BP, Halliburton and Transocean suddenly made themselves contenders.

For example, BP’s dapper, boyish-looking chief executive, Tony Hayward, has shown a depth of cluelessness that is making him a star performer on Team Oil. On May 14, with the out-of-control well still barfing massive amounts of oil and gas from four miles deep under the Gulf floor, and with the billowing slick threatening the shores of four states, Hayward stepped onstage to announce that this blowout is really not that big of a deal. Indeed, chirped the boss of the world’s largest oil corporation, the blotch is “relatively tiny.”

Tiny? Yes, he explained: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersants we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

What a boffo performance! No wonder this guy was paid $4,595,453.31 last year.

But, in going for the Icky, BP and the whole Deepwater Horizon group are a team. On May 11, they were confronted with a U.S. Senate hearing into their oily mess, and the group played it like the pros they are. Hayward couldn’t make the gig, but BP America Chairman Lamar McKay slid effortless into the role. At the start of the hearing, he showed his stuff by candidly conceding blame for the catastrophe: Not BP’s blame — it was Transocean’s fault, he said, pointing to the corporation that owned the drilling rig.

Then Transocean stepped forward to assure the senators that, in fact, the fault lay with Halliburton, pointing to the notoriously slipshod outfit that was supposed to cap the well a mile down on the Gulf floor. In turn, and not missing a beat, Halliburton professed that its work on the disastrous project had conformed precisely to specifications set by BP, which was drilling the well.

So there it was for the public to see — a perfect circle of jerks pointing at one another. Bravo! This is the high standard of corporate ethics that the Icky celebrates.

But Team Oil did not quit with this bold triple play. Led by Transocean, the culprits have already begun the lobbying and legal ploys to avoid paying for what they did. Last week, Transocean lawyers filed a petition in a Houston federal court asserting that its financial liability — for 11 dead workers, destruction of the livelihoods for countless fishing families and other businesses, and for the unfathomable ecological damage still occurring — comes to (ka-ching!) $27 million.

This amount is set in stone, the lawyers claim, by the “Limits of Liability Act.” When was it enacted? In 1851. Before the first industrial oil well was drilled in the United States.

Transocean didn’t mention that it has already collected a $400 million payout from its disaster insurance policy. Yes, this means that this Swiss-based oil-drilling giant could make $373 million profit from the Gulf blowout.

Meanwhile, Transocean executives announced last week that it was rewarding its shareholders (including themselves) with a billion-dollar dividend. Wall Street bankers can only genuflect in admiration of such selfishness.

So this year’s Icky is up for grabs.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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