Thomas Russo, the Secret Scribe of AIG

aig2 Thomas Russo, the Secret Scribe of AIGOne of the most important people in finance was overlooking Central Park from his Fifth Avenue apartment, enjoying the Bach that his twin teenage daughters were playing on violin and speaking to the young Fulbright scholars from Iraq and China he’d invited for a reception. “In everything I do, I always ask myself, ‘Am I doing the best that I can?'” the host, Lehman Brothers vice chairman and chief legal officer Thomas Russo, told a New York Sun writer. “If you feel good about what you do, then you can be at peace with yourself.”

It was early 2005. Mr. Russo spoke about morality, forthrightness, passion, hospitality, fitness and the Lehman culture of doing the right thing. “I cannot emphasize enough,” the vice chairman repeated, “the importance of doing the right thing.”

Five years later, Mr. Russo still speaks about those principles, all except the culture of his old firm, which declared bankruptcy two years ago. In February, Bob Benmosche hired him as general counsel and executive vice president of AIG, the finance giant, overseeing regulatory and government affairs.

Since then, the principles have led him to do something odd.

On nights and weekends, even while vacationing with his wife on the Danube, Mr. Russo has penned a book about this country’s pressing financial calamities. “You do the things you feel are right,” he said in a brief interview from an AIG office in New Jersey. “Where I’m coming from is a sincere concern. That’s why I did it.”

>>KEY LESSONS FROM THE TOP CRISIS CHRONICLES

The 2008 Financial Crisis and Its Aftermath, with a David Foster Wallace-like 581 footnotes on its 140 pages, shows what the world looks like from inside the halls of Wall Street. The view is astounding. By the end of the book, now quietly available for free online, or as a $1.99 download for the Kindle, and written with his AIG associate Aaron Katzel, it turns into a meditation on this country’s debt. The finale even proposes a way to negotiate the tax raises and long-term spending cuts that the country will, he worries, rot without.

Its first half, though, is what makes it special. Mr. Russo, a longtime confidante of Lehman chief Richard S. Fuld, provides an intense and detailed history of the American financial system’s near collapse. And even though that account is incomparably more thoughtful than the one Hank Paulson gives in his woozy memoir On the Brink, what’s even more interesting is what Mr. Russo leaves out. “One can understand why individuals who have suffered the painful consequences of the crisis would be tempted to seek a simple explanation for their difficulties. However,” he writes in an early passage, “no one party was solely responsible.”

He is angry about a lot of things, but the Wall Street bailouts are not one of them. “I’m looking at this from a much bigger picture,” he said. “I’m looking at it from above.”

So the role that giants like Mr. Russo’s past and current firm played in the system’s downfall isn’t so much an afterthought as a consideration that comes up early and is put into a grander perspective. “If you try to single out any one thing at fault, the remedies will be singled out towards that one thing,” he said. “You create a very defensive and to some extent counterproductive atmosphere, because people will say, ‘It wasn’t me; it was someone else.’ It becomes emotional, and one thing this paper tries to do is stay away from emotion. It wants facts.”

 

MR. RUSSO, WHO turns 67 this month, had to give a speech at the Practicing Law Institute in the fall on the impact of the recession on corporate America. “So I started to prepare an outline for my talk,” he said. “And I just got more and more and more involved, and it obviously became far more than an outline for a talk. And then it got out of control.” 

Even though Mr. Russo has written a two-volume book on commodity regulation, which the American Bar Association Journal called a “treatise” but “nuts-and-bolt-ish,” he wasn’t interested in getting an agent. “I’m much more interested in getting the information out,” he said. The money from his Kindle copies will go to the Scholar Rescue Fund at the Institute for International Education, which oversees the Fulbright scholarship, and whose executive committee Mr. Russo chairs.

“I think he very much does have a sense of public service, or duty, to sort of share his knowledge and experience,” said Mr. Katzel, “and, hopefully, through that knowledge and experience get people to focus on the very significant challenges that the company faces.” He paused. “I’m sorry–the country! I meant to say country.”

“To the extent that lay people will read it, I think that’s good,” Mr. Russo said. “The ideal readers would be the people in Washington who are going to make these decisions.”

He considered publishing it under a pseudonym. “You want the work to speak for itself,” he said. “I didn’t like sticking my head up.” The first copy of the book that The Observer saw said “Confidential–Not for Distribution,” but also “For your eyes only” and “show to no one.” Since Lehman’s collapse, of course, regulators, former shareholders and the public have monitored Mr. Fuld and deputies like Joe Gregory. “If this draws negative attention, I’d be shocked,” Mr. Russo said. “If trying to go and deal with the problems in this country draws negative attention to me, I wouldn’t feel sorry for me, I’d feel sorry for people.”

Most of the book is measured. Not only is there no first-person narration, but there’s no story line or scenes. “I didn’t want that. I wanted this to be much more of an intellectual piece,” he said. “What this paper is meant to do is just inundate the reader with a lot of facts, so that the reader will stand back and say, ‘We have a lot of problems.'” The investment banks are barely mentioned. “Why do I want to talk about Goldman or Morgan Stanley? Then it’ll be looked at like, ‘It’s only because you were in this seat or that seat'; you’ll be attributed all sorts of motivations. My motivation for this was very pure.”

The sense you get from the book is that Mr. Russo is a worried man. Between the pressing need for stimulus spending to save a withering economy, and the medium-term need to deal with gargantuan federal and municipal debt, not to mention trillions of dollars of off-balance-sheet obligations to Medicare and Social Security, “the problems the U.S. faces are, in some sense, insurmountable,” he writes.

Still, he has suggestions. He wants a bipartisan panel, like the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that issues its report this year, to propose specific legislation that Congress will then have to either pass or come up with alternatives for. “I just made it up,” he said about the idea. “And then we found precedent.”

According to donation records, Mr. Russo has given to members of both parties, and the book keeps its politics to itself. But, interestingly, its finale complains about politicians who promise tax cuts they know will threaten the country’s solvency, a marvelously conservative argument against anti-tax fundamentalism.

 

MR. RUSSO IS livid about the dark future, but not about Wall Street’s hand in having shaped it. He puts the phrase “bailouts” in scare quotes, dismissing the hubbub. “Yes,” he writes, “it would have been far worse had the government failed to act.”