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WASHINGTON – Salaried retirees at Delphi Corp., including 750 from the Buffalo area, have been fighting for four years for the pension benefits they lost the day the federal government bailed out the U.S. auto industry.

And while they’re still a long way from getting the money they think they’re owed, they’re at least finally getting a bit of something else they’ve been seeking: the truth.

A federal inspector general Wednesday confirmed what the employees had long suspected: that while negotiating General Motors’ structured bankruptcy in 2009, federal officials played a role in the decision to make sure that most of Delphi’s unionized retirees would get their full pensions, but the salaried retirees would not.

That fact, combined with court orders forcing the government to turn over documents regarding the auto bailout that the government had long fought to keep secret, gives the salaried workers at least a little hope that some day they may get their full pensions back.

“This has been a very, very long road,” said Den Black, chairman of the Delphi Salaried Retirees Association. “But with these facts coming out … what it comes down to in the end is potentially through the court, or possibly otherwise, justice will be done.”

The Delphi salaried workers believe they suffered a grave injustice under the auto bailout, which granted full pensions to United Auto Workers retirees while cutting the pensions of the former salaried workers at Delphi, a onetime GM spinoff, by anywhere from 30 to 70 percent.

Former government officials who were involved in the auto bailout have long said that GM decided to stick to previous union agreements in guaranteeing the UAW pensions while allowing a bankruptcy-induced cut to what Delphi’s nonunion retirees would receive.

But Christy Romero, special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, said in a report last month and in congressional testimony Wednesday that the truth was much more complicated than that.

The Treasury Department’s auto team “made it clear to GM that they wanted an agreement with the UAW prior to bankruptcy, and the auto team actively negotiated and made the overall deal,” the report said.

“Treasury’s auto team and GM did not agree to top up the pensions of other former GM employees at Delphi, which did not have active employees at GM and therefore had no leverage to hold up GM’s bankruptcy.”

Testifying at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, Romero disputed earlier government claims that Treasury had merely advised GM on what steps to take in dealing with the bankruptcy restructuring. Given that the government was holding the purse strings for a bankrupt GM, “there was no way Treasury’s role could have been advisory,” she said.

Coming to that conclusion was by no means easy for Romero, since the former government officials involved in the bailout had long refused to speak to her office.

They reversed course under congressional pressure last year and on Wednesday defended their actions.

Noting that Delphi’s salaried pension plan was fully funded when GM spun off the company in 1999 and that Delphi had subsequently allowed the pension plan to fall short of funds, Steve Rattner, the government’s former auto czar, said it would have been improper for the government to correct Delphi’s mistake and grant the salaried retirees their full pensions.

“Such an action, while generous, would not have been consistent with the goals of restoring GM to viability or protecting U.S. taxpayers’ investment,” he said.

Rattner and several other witnesses testified that the UAW was able to keep its full pensions because it had the leverage to shut down GM if union workers were not made whole – leverage that the nonunion employees did not have.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., subcommittee chairman, cited another reason union retirees fared so well under the deal. “Unionized Delphi retirees were made whole because they just happened to be a politically favored group,” he said.

But under questioning by Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., Romero said that was not the case: “We did not find evidence that political clout of the UAW was a factor in GM and Treasury’s decision.”

Romero’s report was just one of several pieces of good news the retirees, who number 20,000 nationwide, have received in the past month.

Separate court orders issued in August will force both the Treasury Department and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to produce thousands of pages of auto bailout documents that the government had wanted to keep hidden.

In addition, former Treasury officials will be deposed in the federal lawsuit the Delphi salaried retirees have filed against the government. “After four years, the truth is beginning to emerge,” said Tom Rose of Dayton, Ohio, a leader in the retirees group.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com