Tribune Co. bonus plan draws objections from U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee

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Posted by on August 06, 2009 at 19:19:24:

Tribune Co. bonus plan draws questions

U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee objects to payment request

By Michael Oneal
Tribune reporter

August 6, 2009

The U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee in Tribune Co.'s Chapter 11 case and three of the company's unions have raised objections to management's plan to pay out tens of millions of dollars in performance bonuses.

The filings came Tuesday and Wednesday in response to Tribune Co.'s July 22 request for authorization from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware to pay from $21.5 million to almost $67 million in bonuses to more than 700 managers and other key employees.

Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune, also sought to pay nine of its top 10 executives $3.1 million in belated 2008 bonuses. Sam Zell, the company's chairman and chief executive, is not part of the group.

In its response to Tribune Co.'s motion, the U.S. trustee said the company didn't provide enough data to justify its incentive plan. The trustee said there is "insufficient information" in the motion to prove that the payments are for what management called "bona fide incentive programs and awards based on real performance targets."

The trustee, which is charged with enforcing bankruptcy laws, said the awards are based on meeting specific cash flow targets but that Tribune Co. does not "give any factual and/or historical context to back up their characterization of that performance target as being 'real.' " It also questions whether the awards are in the "ordinary course of business," as required by law.

Consequently, the trustee said the company should provide cash-flow targets for 2006 through 2008 and actual performance against those targets. Likewise, Tribune Co. should provide projections and actual results for 2009.

The trustee said it reserves the right to supplement its response or object to the bonuses once it has additional information. It objected outright to Tribune Co.'s request to seal certain parts of a consultant's report filed in support of its motion.

Tribune Co. said in a statement: "The motion now before the court has the support of our senior lenders and the unsecured creditors committee. Importantly, the bulk of these incentive programs benefit more than 700 employees across the company and are performance-based. We believe our 2009 incentive program is both moderate and reasonable."

Objections also came from three unions led by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which sits on the unsecured creditors committee and represents Baltimore Sun employees.

"While creditors face limited recovery on their claims and most rank-and-file employees live with frozen pay and benefits the Debtors believe a proper exercise of business judgment results in millions of dollars distributed to management," the union filing said.

Among other claims, the unions question whether the goals set by the bonus plans are challenging enough. "The [bonus plan] is not designed to drive employee performance toward challenging goals which are subject to the risks of the marketplace," the filing said.

Tribune Co., which filed for Chapter 11 in December after sinking under the debt taken on to go private in 2007, has said the bonus payments are needed to motivate managers working under difficult conditions.

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