Executive paychecks have held up far better than stock prices at some troubled energy companies.

While several challenged players have yet to file audited 2002 financial statements -- let alone compensation details -- early trends are already raising some eyebrows. Recent proxy filings show that many energy executives continued to pick up huge paychecks in a year when stock prices dwindled to record lows.

Overall, energy executives did see their pay decline from the lofty heights set before

Enron's

bankruptcy sent the industry into a tailspin. But to some, those paychecks still looked like bloated rewards for leading companies that lost billions of dollars in market value.

"It's morally incorrect," Tulsa money manager Fredric E. Russell said simply. "Executives should not earn millions of dollars when their stock prices plummet and thousands of employees lose their jobs."

Russell, whose firm weathered painful losses by investing in hometown

Williams

(WMB) - Get Report

, said executive paychecks must plunge before they even approach a fair level.

"It's hard for me to imagine anyone -- unless he or she is really outstanding -- being worth more than $1 million a year," Russell said. "That's still a tremendous amount of money." Yet a brief survey of the big players in the energy sector shows there's a tremendous number of executives making that and much more.

Eye on the Ball?

Even after a 53% pay cut -- including the total elimination of his bonus -- Williams CEO Steve Malcolm still raked in more than $3 million during last year's 89% stock decline. Malcolm's base salary actually jumped 70%, from $512,000 to $871,000, following his midyear promotion to CEO. But his overall pay dropped with the loss of restricted stock awards that, together with a $636,272 bonus, had boosted his compensation by $3.64 million to $6.45 million in 2001. Still, Malcolm did pick up stock options valued at $2.8 million -- up from options worth $2.2 million a year earlier -- in 2002.

William Wise, the ousted CEO of

El Paso

(EP)

, took a much larger pay cut during his final year at the helm. Long criticized for collecting one of the biggest paychecks in the industry, Wise saw his total compensation plunge by 70% with the elimination of his annual bonus. But he still picked up a seven-figure salary -- up $100,000 to $1.4 million -- and is set to receive nearly $7 million more in severance pay.

El Paso's stock plummeted 84%, falling below $5 a share for the first time ever, in 2002.

Some energy executives actually enjoyed big jumps in total pay last year.

TXU

(TXU)

CEO Erle Nye nearly tripled his paycheck in 2002, despite a 60% dive in the company's stock price. Nye collected $7.8 million in total compensation, up from $2.88 million a year earlier, after reaping long-term incentive rewards for TXU's strong performance prior to a disastrous year in Europe. Erle has promised shareholders that his paycheck, free of big long-term rewards or any annual bonus, will drop by 75% this year. TXU has already snipped Nye's $1.04 million base salary to $950,000 as part of a companywide effort to slash costs.

Standing Eight-Count

Duke

(DUK) - Get Report

CEO Rick Priory also continued to collect on his company's strong performance during the booming Enron era. In 2002, a year that saw Duke's might challenged and its stock price cut in half, Priory's total compensation jumped by 24% to $5.9 million. While his base salary climbed by only 9% -- and he received no performance bonus -- Priory cleaned up with $2.2 million worth of long-term incentives and $1.7 million worth of restricted stock. He also received $100,000 to relocate for security reasons.

At

Teco

(TE)

, CEO Robert Fagan managed to pick up a six-figure performance bonus despite a 41% plunge in the company's stock. While his total compensation slipped by 6% last year, Fagan still earned a $675,000 salary -- up 8% from 2001 -- and a $476,000 bonus. He also scored 170,000 stock options, but they will remain worthless unless the stock price nearly triples. In the meantime, his salary has been frozen for 2003.

Top executives at some smaller utilities got hefty paychecks, as well.

TST Recommends

Progress Energy

(PGN)

, formerly known as Carolina Power & Light, paid CEO William Cavanaugh three times more than he collected in 2001. His total compensation rocketed from $3.1 million to $9.7 million -- due largely to $7.1 million worth of long-term incentives -- despite a slide in company profits and a worrisome debt load. Progress rewarded Cavanaugh for the company's stable stock price, which slipped only 4% during a massive industry downturn, and for postponing his retirement from 2004 to 2005. Several other Progress executives enjoyed big pay hikes, as well.

The top five executives at

Wisconsin Energy

(WEC) - Get Report

collected paychecks that were, on average, one-third larger than they were in 2001. The pay for CEO Richard Abdoo leapt 27% to $1.62 million after the board voted to more than double his salary with an $860,000 bonus. But Wisconsin Energy's stock has fared well with Abdoo at the helm of the company. Including a 12% climb last year, the stock has gained 35% -- as the

S&P 500

fell 31% -- since the company launched a recovery plan in late 2000.

Northeast Utilities

(NU)

, which slightly outperformed its sector with a 14% dive last year, shelled out 15% less cash but more stock options to its top executive. The company paid CEO Michael Morris a base salary of $915,385, up from $900,000 in 2001, but cut his bonus by 35% to $558,000. However, the company nearly tripled Morris' stock-option awards to $630,000.

Black and Green

Even California's bankrupt

PG&E

(PCG) - Get Report

paid its top executive a handsome sum. The struggling utility handed CEO Robert Glynn $1.8 million in salary and bonuses last year, despite a 28% dive in the company's stock. Glynn picked up an even bigger $2.1 million paycheck in 2001, when PG&E sought bankruptcy protection amidst a home-state energy crisis. He collected only $900,000 the year before the California blackouts began.

Some larger energy companies -- including a few blamed for the California energy crisis -- have yet to even reveal last year's compensation for their top executives.

Aquila

(ILA)

,

Dynegy

(DYN)

and

Mirant

(MIR)

had filed neither proxies nor audited financial statements by last week.

Aquila has already drawn some fire for a parting gift to its booted CEO. Early this year, a big institutional shareholder filed paperwork with the

Securities and Exchange Commission

that described both the ousted CEO and his brother -- who has since replaced him -- as "grossly" overpaid. Outgoing CEO Robert Green sailed out on a $7.6 million parachute after collecting nearly $20 million in total compensation between 1998 and 2001. His replacement, current CEO Richard Green, collected an even bigger $21.6 million during that same period.

Aquila's stock hemorrhaged 93% of its value, plunging from $25.17 to $1.77, during the merchant energy meltdown last year. Dynegy and Mirant, which danced around the $1 mark as well, weathered losses of 95% and 88%, respectively.