With a silhouetted image of a cigar-smoking bigwig reading a failing report card on its cover, a Washington think tank published a study revealing that 38 percent America’s top-paid CEOs were either booted, busted or bailed out over the past two decades.

The report, put together by Institute For Policy Studies, is the 20th annual installment in the think tank’s “Executive Excess” series.

This year’s edition, titled “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted: A 20-Year Review of America’s Top-Paid CEOs,” looks back at the 25 highest paid U.S. CEOs in each of the 20 years from 1993-2012—a time span which includes the years of corporate meltdowns like Enron and the financial crisis of the 2008.

“By the most basic of definitions,” nearly 40 percent of the 500 slots were occupied by chief executives that get a failing grade for performance, says the report, referring to the clear-cut metrics of bailouts and bankruptcies, firings and frauds used for this year’s performance analysis.

“Extensive research over recent years has exposed the chronic problem of ‘pay for poor performance,’ [but this prior] research generally defines performance narrowly, as a matter of shareholder returns,” the report notes.

Using more dramatic yardsticks of bailouts, ousters and fraud charges for the 20-year analysis, IPS reports that:

  • 112 of the 500 top-pay slots—22 percent—were associated with CEOs whose firms either ceased to exist or received taxpayer bailouts after the 2008 financial crash.
  • 39 of the 500 slots—8 percent—were associated with executive who were eventually fired.
  • A similar number—38 of the 500—led companies that wound up paying significant fines or settlements for financial fraud.

Even this “narrowly distinct lens on bad behaviors presents a stark picture of a pay system that encourages high-risk behavior and law breaking—at the expense of taxpayers and investors,” the IPS researchers assert.

In a video presentation released in conjunction with the report, IPS refers to a wider lens that might have exposed more problematic activities. “No statistics are available on how many [CEOs] fatten bottom lines by cutting corners on environmental protections, gutting employee pensions or cheating consumers,” says the voice-over on the video.

The video also reveals that the executives included in the 500 pay slots “made more in a week than average workers could make in a year.” In fact, the average pay gap between large company CEOs and average American workers has grown from 195-to-1 in 1993 to 354-to-1 in 2012, the report says.

The report also reveals that the CEOs that were fired “jumped out the escape hatch with golden parachutes valued at $48 million, on average,” in spite of their poor performance.

Because some of the CEOs included in the IPS analysis made the annual lists of the top-25 highest paid CEOs in America multiple times, there are actually only 241 individuals on the list in total.

A footnote to the report notes that when CEOs qualified for more than one of the “poor performance” categories—for example, they were fired for fraud—they were only counted once.

Appendices to the report reveal that even the most seemingly clear-cut metrics are subject to some interpretation.

While bailout numbers are straightforward (drawn from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Trouble Asset Relief Program, Transactions Report-Investment Programs, for the Period Ending May 22, 2013″), the report notes that “corporations tend to portray the firing of a CEO as a voluntary resignation” to avoid negative PR, legal and financial repercussions.

So how did IPS determine “involuntary resignations” for its “booted” list?

According to the report’s Appendix describing the methodology, “academic researchers have developed an accepted approach to classifying ‘forced turnover’ by relying on articles in reputable news sources that state that the CEO was fired, forced to resign or left following a policy disagreement or some other equivalent.”

Using this approach, insurance executive Maurice R. Greenberg, the former chairman and CEO of American International Group is first on the “booted” list on the basis of a New York Times Dealbook article from 2009 (“A.I.G. Lawyer Says Greenberg Lied to Rewrite History,” July 6, 2009).

To tally up pay slots for “busted” CEOs, IPS used online sources to document settlements and fines related to civil and criminal charges of fraudulent activities for the purpose of financial gain, setting a minimum of $100 million related to activities carried out while the CEO was leading the company.

The highest-paid CEO data, which is the backbone of the IPS analysis, is drawn from Wall Street Journal annual executive compensation surveys, and includes salary, bonus, long-term compensation (including gains from the exercise of stock options and the value of payouts under long-term incentive compensation plans), the report says.

In addition to the “poor performers” club detailed in the analysis, the IPS study also reports on several other clubs, including:

The Men’s Club, noting that only four women have made the top 25 lists over the past 20 years.

The $1 Billion Club, consisting of three CEOs who took in more than $1 billion in inflation-adjusted pay over the course of the past 20 years: Lawrence Ellison of Oracle, with $1.8 billion; Sanford Weill of Travelers and Citigroup, at $1.5 billion; Michael Eisner of Disney, $1.4 billion.