The master of ceremonies made a mistake as he named John Thain one of the year’s finest dads, introducing him as the chief executive officer of Citigroup Inc.
“Vikram Pandit will be very unhappy,” Thain said, accepting an award from Father’s Day/Mother’s Day Council Inc. on June 14. “I’m actually the CEO of CIT, which is similar, but not quite the same.”
The confusion was warranted. In the past two months, half a dozen current and former bank chiefs have been honored in New York along with Thain, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch & Co. who arranged its 2008 sale to Bank of America Corp. and left after Merrill’s $15 billion loss forced the combined firm to seek more government support.
Bank of America’s Brian T. Moynihan, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon, Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman and Pandit are among the bankers recognized since May 1, a day of international protests against Wall Street. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. President Gary D. Cohn accepted an award for the firm that evening from Friends of the High Line over hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and slow-braised short ribs. Goldman Sachs and its employees have given more than $6 million to the Manhattan park, he said.
“Look, the whole idea of these things is to raise money for the charity,” Thain said in an interview after accepting his Father of the Year award. “The demonization of Wall Street and bankers is very much a function of the press and of Washington, and not much more broadly held.”
Nonprofits embrace bankers, often honoring them because of their donations, said Naomi Levine, executive director of New York University’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.
“Does this make me happy? No, it doesn’t. I look at what some of the banks and other insurance companies have done to the American economy and I’m not comfortable with it,” said Levine, who previously oversaw fundraising as an NYU executive. “You try to balance your criticism of some of the things that Wall Street has done with the need.”
Pandit, 55, was the most-feted of the bank CEOs. A trio of June salutes began with Chaka Khan singing “I’m Every Woman” and Lionel Richie performing “Three Times a Lady” at a gala for Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Pandit received a corporate award in recognition of the company’s support -- $1.6 million to the Apollo Theater Foundation since 2002, according to Elizabeth Fogarty, a bank spokeswoman. The foundation’s board is headed by former Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons.
A 22-piece Latin band and the singer Josh Groban performed when Pandit was honored June 7 by Boys & Girls Harbor, which runs a conservatory and school programs in Harlem. The bank and its foundation have given more than $500,000 to the group since 1972, Fogarty said.
She said the lender has given the same amount since 2005 to the Museum of the City of New York, which presented Pandit with a leadership award at a June 18 black-tie dinner, where guests had a private cocktail-hour viewing of an exhibition on the history of New York banking. Citigroup is sponsoring the show to mark the firm’s 200th anniversary, according to a press release.
“Citi has had a long and fulfilling relationship with these institutions, and it is especially meaningful to be honored during our 200th anniversary,” Pandit said in an e-mail. “We are proud to support the great institutions that make New York City, our home for 200 years, a better place.”
Pandit’s $15 million pay package for 2011 didn’t get the support of Citigroup shareholders, who rejected it in a non-binding vote in April. The company’s stock has plunged more than 90 percent since Pandit became CEO in December 2007.
Dimon was named executive of the year by the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business at its May 3 conference, “Economic Action and the Management of Risk.” The honor is given to a leader who “demonstrates a deep respect for our nation’s fiscal health,” according to the school’s website.
A week later, Dimon, 56, disclosed a $2 billion trading loss in a division that helps manage the firm’s risk.
“The developments don’t change our fundamental assessment,” Mark Zupan, the school’s dean, said in an e-mail. “If anything, the manner in which Mr. Dimon has handled the adversity only has increased our esteem for him.”
The award wasn’t given because of donations, Zupan said.
Dimon was celebrated again on May 24 at the Salute to Freedom gala, an annual fundraising dinner for New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum held on the hangar deck of the landmarked aircraft carrier.
“In a difficult situation you find out what people are made of, who runs for help and who runs away, who takes responsibility and who scapegoats others, who you can trust and who makes it all about them,” Dimon said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “To all the active military members and veterans in the room: I’d go into the foxhole with any of you, and I hope I wouldn’t let you down.”
Last year the bank agreed to pay $56 million to settle claims that it overcharged soldiers on their mortgages and improperly seized the homes of active-duty military personnel. Dimon said then that he and the bank “deeply apologize.”
Morgan Stanley’s Gorman and Bank of America’s Moynihan were lauded the same day Dimon was named best executive. Gorman, wearing a tuxedo on the roof of the St. Regis Hotel, received an award from International House, a New York residence for graduate students. Moynihan was honored by the American Ireland Fund in a Lincoln Center tent.
Former bankers have been celebrated too. Sanford I. Weill, 79, CEO of Citigroup after a 1998 merger that depended on the government overturning a portion of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, was honored May 7 by the National Academy Foundation, a career-preparation group he founded. Pandit, a successor at the bank, was co-chair of the benefit.
At the Father of the Year awards at the Sheraton New York Hotel, host Mark Shriver apologized for bungling his introduction of Thain, 57, a former Goldman Sachs president who has been CEO of CIT Group Inc. since February 2010.
“I thought it was a misspelling,” said Shriver, senior vice president of nonprofit Save the Children. “It said CIT -- I’m like, this has got to be Citi.”
The financial crisis hasn’t had much of an impact on honors for bank chiefs, and the importance of raising money for charity overshadows other aspects of benefits, like potentially awkward conversations about business, Thain said after the event.
“I don’t really mind people asking me questions,” he said. “Whatever happened in 2008, 2009, there’s lots and lots of misinformation, and things that are just wrong, but I’ve never minded talking about it.”
Against his advice, Thain’s three children who have graduated from college followed him into finance.
“I guess they’ve seen what I’ve been able to do and they like it,” said Thain, who has a fourth child still in school.
Jeffrey Peek, Thain’s predecessor at CIT and its CEO when the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009, was honored with his wife at a February gala for the Citizens Committee for New York City, which funds volunteer-led neighborhood groups.
School children sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to a crowd that included Paul Simon, the song’s writer. Peek oversaw CIT’s expansion into subprime mortgages, leaving the firm after it emerged from bankruptcy protection. He is now vice chairman of investment banking at Barclays Plc.
Peek declined to comment, according to Kerrie Cohen, a spokeswoman for London-based Barclays.