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AIG's Benmosche apologizes for lynching comments

Robert Benmosche, CEO and president of AIG.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The CEO of bailed-out insurance giant American International Group (AIG) has backed away from inflammatory comments in which he compared the public anger over bonuses to the lynching of African Americans in the Deep South.

Robert Benmosche came under fire from politicians and regulators on Tuesday for the comments he made in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He has since apologized for his "poor choice of words," saying that he did not mean to offended anyone.

Referring to the public anger over bonuses during the financial crisis, Benmosche is quoted as saying: it "was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that – sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."

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In the late 19th and early 20th century, thousands of African Americans were killed by so-called "lynch mobs" in the southern states of America, although the practice continued until the 1960s.

Congressman Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House's Oversight Committee, said that if the quotes were true, Benmosche should resign as AIG's CEO.

"I find it unbelievably appalling that Mr Benmosche equates the violent repression of the African American people with congressional efforts to prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars," he said in a statement.

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Cummings led an investigation into the government's support of AIG, which was almost went under during the financial crisis of 2008.

The insurance giant received a U.S. taxpayer-funded bailout in 2008 that eventually topped $180 billion, and saw the government take a 79.9 percent stake in the company. But public anger was stoked in 2009 amid revelations that the company's staff would receive bonuses totaling $165 million despite the state aid.

Barney Frank, who was the chairman of the House financial services committee at the time of the bailout, also criticized Benmosche's remarks, accusing him of "gross stupidity."

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"Comparing people who were criticized to people who were killed is bizarre," he told The Financial Times. "The fact is AIG was the recipient of extraordinary help from the federal government and I believe the bonuses were not only excessive but hard to explain given the people who got the bonuses were the people who were there when they screwed up so badly."

The AIG head also came in for condemnation on Twitter, with New York's Superintendent of Financial Services Ben Lawsky describing Benmosche's comments as "simply outrageous," while Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley tweeted that they were "offensive."

AIG finished paying back its bailout at the start of this year, and announced its first capital return since the aid in August. Benmosche joined the company in 2009.

By CNBC's Katrina Bishop. Follow her on Twitter @KatrinaBishop