A recipe for conspiracy on the Gulf Coast


If you like a good conspiracy theory, you’ll love this one. Here’s the recipe:

Take one catastrophic explosion on a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Add the worst offshore oil spill in the nation’s history.

Slowly stir in heart-wrenching photographs of oil-soaked pelicans. Fold in platoons of reporters.

Add a big oil company that promises to “make this right” and a big government that promises to “do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

Simmer for seven months.

Every once in a while, make note of the fact that fishermen, restaurants, small businesses, contractors, stores — the list goes on and on — are going out of business because they haven’t gotten enough of the assistance they were promised.

But don’t rescue them, and don’t explain why you won’t. Above all, do not give out any information that might help people understand what you’re doing.

Before long, you’ll have not just one but a whole batch of conspiracy theories.

That’s because ignorance, like nature, abhors a vacuum. When people are kept in the dark about something as big as the oil-spill claims process, when no one will tell them why their claims are being reimbursed only partially or not at all, when there’s no accountability whatsoever, conspiracy theories are born.

Ken Feinberg, the so-called “claims czar,” won’t explain the amounts his Gulf Coast Claims Facility sends claimants. He won’t reveal how the staff arrives at its decisions or why some folks get paid fully, some get paid partially and others get nothing — even when their circumstances are similar.

If you don’t like what you get from the czar, tough. There’s no appeals process.

You can take what you’re offered and sign away your right to sue BP, or refuse the offer and join a class-action lawsuit that may or may not be worth the wait.

Is it any wonder that Gov. Bob Riley calls the process “extortion”? Like most people in the affected region, he initially was hopeful that the claims process would work. Now he, too, sees that it hasn’t worked; now he, too, can’t get any answers.

Theories abound on the Gulf Coast that Feinberg, who professes to be independent of BP, is in fact answering to the oil company.

Some say he must be earning a commission on the number of people he can persuade not to sue BP. This theory is bolstered by the fact that Feinberg has insisted repeatedly, “I’ll be much more generous than any court would be.”

Others say he’s intent on giving supplicants as little money as possible so that BP won’t have to cough up all of the $20 billion it agreed to set aside for oil-spill claims. According to this theory, the less money BP has to shell out from its claims fund, the more it’ll reward Feinberg when this is all over.

Yet another theory claims that the White House is on BP’s side; otherwise, why wouldn’t it intervene?

If information flowed freely, people on the Gulf Coast might not have all these theories about what’s “really” happening. But all they know for sure is that there’s one person who can count on getting a regular monthly payment from BP.

His name is Kenneth Feinberg, his check is for $850,000, and he never has to ask twice for his money.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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