FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Longtime pillars of the community are now pariahs living in fear, hiding behind locked gates and security guards amid the public outrage over bonuses paid with taxpayer bailout money.
Payouts by American International Group Inc. appear to have put a face on the economic struggles the country faces, and the anger targeting AIG executives living in this ritzy area of Connecticut is palpable. Death threats have been pouring in since the brouhaha broke, the company said, and its workers are taking no chances.
“It’s scary,” one executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. “People are very, very nervous for their security.”
The financial products division is in Wilton in Fairfield County, and many of the company’s leaders live in large homes on the “Gold Coast,” an area known more for golf courses and sweeping views of Long Island Sound than for the police cars that now regularly patrol the well-kept streets.
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Corporate officials advised employees in a memo later posted on Gawker.com to avoid wearing the company logo, in an effort to keep from drawing attention. Workers were also urged to travel in pairs at night and park in well-lit areas.
And typifying the preoccupation with the AIG payouts, a busload of activists plans to drive by executives’ houses Saturday in an attempt to deliver letters highlighting the strife of ordinary families in the recession and seeking solutions for economic recovery.
AIG said Friday that at least three executives who received bonuses planned to return the money, including James Haas and Doug Poling, both residents of Fairfield County.
“However someone may feel about the appropriateness of the retention payments, there is nothing appropriate about the threats that people have made to and about employees,” company spokesman Mark Herr said in a statement. Haas and Poling have not responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The Polings help out charities including a homeless shelter, theaters and a school, according to The Connecticut Post. At the house, a large white Colonial on a cul-de-sac with all the trappings of suburban prosperity — green shutters, a wood-shingled roof and an invisible fence for dogs — a police car pulled up Friday afternoon and talked to a security guard.
Officer Joe Kalson said that he drives by two or three times a day as of late and that other officers patrol the area, as well.
Organizers of the bus protest noted that there are no plans to trespass and that only a small group planned to get off the bus at each stop.
The protest is an attempt to let people suffering from loss of jobs or homes tell their stories directly to AIG executives, said organizer Jon Green, director of Connecticut Working Families, a coalition of labor unions and other groups.
“There is a human cost to the economic meltdown that we’re experiencing,” Green said.
Security companies in New York say the financial crisis has created brisk business in everything from bomb-sniffing dogs to bodyguards for executives. The firms didn’t want to identify the companies for security reasons.
Pat Timlin, president of the Michael Stapleton Associates, which provides dog teams, said some companies are reacting to the negative atmosphere surrounding Wall Street firms.
“These are people used to living private lives, and are now faced with publicity and attention, often negative attention, and they’re worried and responding to that,” Timlin said.
Tim Horner, the managing director at Kroll Inc. security company, said the financial industry is taking any perceived risk much more seriously. He has seen an increase on the human resources side of security from companies concerned about hostile laid-off employees.
He has also seen more companies reacting to the very public criticism of once very private companies like AIG.
“There are corporations that have been spotlighted as those responsible or whatever, where they weren’t before, and it’s a concern,” he said. “What’s going on here is the stress that individuals and corporations are facing, given a downturn economy. The problems are highlighted more during this time.”
Horner said AIG seems to be responding prudently to a corporate security risk.
“I’m sure there is not only a perceived risk, but there are probably threatening or harassing e-mails and blog entries all over the place. They’re right to cover themselves,” he said.