The top executive at Prudential Insurance Co. of America approved a $1.46 million payment to a subordinate who threatened to go public with details on how insurance agents cheated customers nationwide, a company lawyer told Florida investigators.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the lawyer's sworn statements, released last week, provide the most detailed picture yet of improper sales practices at Prudential. The company has agreed to pay $410 million to policyholders who had been persuaded to use accumulated cash from old policies to buy new ones.In the documents, attorney John J. Massaro quoted a superior at company headquarters in Newark, N.J., as saying of the potential whistleblower: "We paid him off. He held us hostage."

Massaro said the payment was made "with the approval of Art Ryan," a former Chase Manhattan Bank executive hired in 1994 to clean up Prudential's image.

Prudential spokesman Robert DeFilippo did not address the claims made in the documents, but told the Times "problems of the past would not be repeated."

Florida is one of several states that continued to investigate Prudential even after the private, $410 million class-action settlement was approved.

Prudential, the nation's largest life insurer, agreed to pay Florida a $15 million fine last spring to settle accusations its agents deceived 128,000 customers into buying expensive policies.

In a practice known as "churning," customers are urged to buy additional life insurance and pay for it by using the cash value in an existing policy.