FRESH from paying back a $US182 billion bailout, the American International Group has been running a nationwide advertising campaign with the tagline, "Thank you America".
But behind the scenes, the restored insurance company is weighing whether to tell the US government agencies that rescued it during the financial crisis: Thanks, but you cheated our shareholders.
The AIG board will meet on Wednesday to discuss a $US25 billion shareholder lawsuit against the government. The lawsuit does not argue that government help was not needed. It contends that the onerous nature of the rescue - the taking of what became a 92 per cent stake in the company, the deal's high interest rates and the funnelling of billions to the insurer's Wall Street clients — deprived shareholders of tens of billions of dollars and violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the taking of private property for "public use, without just compensation".
Maurice Greenberg, AIG's former chief executive, who remains a major investor in the company, filed the lawsuit in 2011 on behalf of fellow shareholders. He has since urged AIG to join the case, a move that could nudge the government into settlement talks.
The choice is not a simple one for the insurer. Its board members, most of whom joined after the bailout, owe a duty to shareholders to consider the lawsuit. If the board does not give careful consideration to the case, Mr Greenberg could challenge its decision to abstain.
Should Mr Greenberg snare a major settlement without AIG, the company could face additional lawsuits from other shareholders. Suing the government would not only placate the 87-year-old former chief but would put AIG in line for a potential payout.
Yet such a move would almost certainly be widely seen as an audacious display of ingratitude. The action would also threaten to inflame tensions in Washington, where the company has become a byword for excessive risk-taking on Wall Street.
Some government officials are already upset with the company for even seriously entertaining the lawsuit, people briefed on the matter said. They noted that without the bailout, AIG shareholders would have fared far worse in bankruptcy.
"On the one hand, from a corporate governance perspective, it appears they're being extra cautious and careful," said Frank Partnoy, a former banker who is now a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego School of Law. "On the other hand, it's a slap in the face to the taxpayer and the government."