Follow the Money: The Corporate Jet Set - TheStreet

Follow the Money: The Corporate Jet Set

<I>TheStreet.com</I> launches a column that sifts through the fine print in filings and documents.
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If you want to know what's really going on, don't follow the gossip.

Follow the money.

It's as true today as it was back during Watergate, when "Deep Throat" whispered the advice to the young Bob Woodward.

So today

TheStreet.com

is launching this column. I'll be digging through the fine print -- in company filings, government documents and other obscure places -- to bring you the stuff that no one wants you to know.

Like who's making money? Who's losing it?

Who's buying the next president?

And who's flying to Wimbledon or Paris -- on your dime?

Corporate rackets didn't go away after Sarbanes-Oxley. They just got smarter. So long as company directors disclose information somewhere in their filings, it's legal. It's in there -- but hardly anyone ever looks. Which is why, until now, the first time investors hear about a scandal such as Bob Nardelli's payoff at

Home Depot

(HD) - Get Report

, it's too late to do anything about it.

By now, everyone has heard about Nancy Pelosi's plane. Until this flap blew up a few weeks ago, most Americans probably assumed that speakers of the House of Representatives flew commercial like everyone else. We now know that after 9/11, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert was given access to a special Air Force jet -- for security purposes, of course.

What you may not know: He wasn't alone.

Most Americans let a four-letter word escape their lips as they watched the horror of 9/11 unfold on TV.

In the case of top company executives, though, that word was: "Lear".And while everyone else was reeling, corporate honchos quietly seized upon the security panic to bring back their favorite toy: the executive jet.

At their shareholders' expense, of course.

When I was a management consultant back in the '90s, we practically needed the Jaws of Life to pry these flying boondoggles from executives' hot little hands.The battle was nearly won, too -- until 9/11.

CEOs saw their chance, jumped aboard and took off.

What's more: Unlike Mr Hastert, or Ms. Pelosi, most of them are not restricted to using the airplanes for official business.

CEOs are now able to use the planes for everything. Trips to Paris. Trips to the, um, Bahamas (with their spouses, naturally). Trips to Wimbledon.

And they don't have to pay a dime. You, the customer and shareholder, pick up the tab. "For security reasons," naturally.

Proxy season is just about to start. In the weeks to come, we'll find out a lot of things.Among them: Who is going to succeed

General Electric's

(GE) - Get Report

Dennis Dammerman as the frequent flyer champion of executive aviation?

Dammerman was a GE vice chairman. And by the time he retired a year ago, his personal use of company planes had cost GE stockholders $1.3 million in just three years. Personal use. That includes $344,068 in 2005 and half a million in 2004.

And it doesn't even count wear and tear on the planes.

Fellow Vice Chairman Robert Wright spent another $121,775 of shareholders' money on personal trips aboard the company jets in 2005, and chief executive Jeff Immelt spent $95,134.

No standing in line with the little people, removing shoes and throwing out toothpaste for them. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. It's free.

For "security purposes," of course.

You have to hand it to

Coca-Cola's

(KO) - Get Report

CEO Neville Isdell. He hasn't been the real thing for stockholders, who've seen their shares lag

Pepsi's

(PEP) - Get Report

badly on his watch. But when he buckles up aboard Coke One, he can be thinking only one thing: "This is it."

Not only does he get to use the company jets whenever he likes. He doesn't even have to eat into his millions to pay tax on the benefit. Coke's customers and shareholders pay that, too. Total cost to the company: $251,902 in 2005, the most recent year so far disclosed.

The executives aren't just allowed to fly these very friendly skies. They are "required" to -- for "security" reasons. This has the happy effect of washing their hands of any blame.

Everybody who's anybody is working a "security" angle these days.Chief Executive Stanley O'Neal pocketed $35 million in pay at

Merrill Lynch

(MER)

in 2005. His personal use of company planes and chauffeur-driven limousines cost stockholders $362,079. For security purposes.

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

CEO Rick Wagoner may have grim news for thousands of workers, but it's good to know he isn't suffering. In 2005, he was paid $5.5 million, and his personal use of company planes cost another $95,856.

My personal favorite?

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

Chairman Chad Gifford, who spent $665,000 using company jets during 2005.

The kicker? He had already retired.

In fact, he'd worked there only for a year. Bank of America bought the company he ran, FleetBoston, in 2004. He remains, however, a part-time "consultant."

Lee Raymond walked away from

Exxon

(XOM) - Get Report

with a half-billion dollars after 12 years at the top. But he didn't have to spend a penny of that money on vacation travel. Cost of personal flights: $89,925 in Raymond's last year.

I'll bet most stockholders wouldn't even be allowed into the swanky private clubs that Raymond belonged to, except maybe as a caddie. But isn't it great he let you pay his membership fees instead? Cost to stockholders: another $67,035. It's almost like you belong.

Exxon honchos even griped that the

SEC

made them disclose all this. "Although we consider these costs a necessary business expense rather than a perquisite, in line with SEC guidance the table includes the amounts attributable to the chairman's ... personal usage," they wrote.

Something to think about the next time you hear someone arguing for the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley. These guys would love to sweep this stuff back under the carpet.

The red carpet, of course.

In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Brett Arends doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Arends takes a critical look inside mutual funds and the personal finance industry in a twice-weekly column that ranges from investment advice for the general reader to the industry's latest scoop. Prior to joining TheStreet.com in 2006, he worked for more than two years at the Boston Herald, where he revived the paper's well-known 'On State Street' finance column and was part of a team that won two SABEW awards in 2005. He had previously written for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail newspapers in London, the magazine Private Eye, and for Global Agenda, the official magazine of the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland. Arends has also written a book on sports 'futures' betting.