Corporate sponsors of 10 underfunded pension plans paid 40 executives a total of $350 million before dumping responsibility for the plans on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Analysts at the U.S. Government Accountability Office have published that finding in a report reported for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Analysts at the U.S. Government Accountability Office have published that finding in a report reported for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The PBGC insures the pensions of 44 million workers and retirees who participate in about 29,000 pension plans.

The PBGC reported a deficit of about $30 billion in fiscal year 2009.

The GAO investigated reports of sponsors that starve pension plans while offering executives lavish pay by analyzing a list of the 1,246 underfunded plans that were terminated from 1999 to 2008.

The GAO investigators went through the list and selected public companies with large unfunded liabilities, large unfunded liabilities per participant, and a large number of plan participants.

The investigators then identified salaries, bonuses, and benefits provided to small groups of high-ranking executives at the companies during the 5 years leading up to the pension plan terminations.

The $350 million that the 40 executives at the 10 highest-compensating companies received included stock awards, income tax reimbursements, retention bonuses, severance packages and supplemental executive-only retirement plans as well as salary, Gregory Kutz, a GAO managing director, writes in a summary of the investigators’ findings.

The GAO investigators did not find any evidence of illegal activity with regard to executive compensation at the companies included in the review, Kutz writes.

One insurance company included in the investigation had 7,718 participants in its pension plan, and the plan suffered from $121 million in underfunding.

The company “paid its two top executives nearly $20 million each in salary and bonuses, while providing millions in additional benefits, such as personal use of corporate aircraft for family vacations to Europe, millions of dollars in life insurance, and millions of stock options,” Kutz writes.

The PBGC has no oversight power with regard to executive compensation before a company files for bankruptcy, and bankruptcy court procedures make recovering executive compensation paid after a bankruptcy filing extremely limited, Kutz writes.

A copy of the GAO report is available here.

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CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, the number of executives who split the $350 million in pre-plan termination compensation was wrong.