In a victory for transparency, a federal judge in Louisiana has confirmed what many people here have claimed all along: that Kenneth Feinberg isn’t acting independently as he facilitates the oil spill claims process.
Mr. Feinberg now has to disclose in all his communications that he is acting on behalf of BP, as the oil giant fulfills its obligations under the Oil Pollution Act.
In his ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier noted that the claims czar’s Washington law firm, Feinberg Rozen LLP, was paid $850,000 a month for work through the middle of January and is currently in discussions with BP about pay going forward.
In that context, should it have come as a surprise when emergency claims payments slowed to a crawl just as claimants were offered final payments (read: subtle pressure to settle)? And does it explain Mr. Feinberg’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude?
In June, when he was appointed by BP and the White House to oversee the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, Mr. Feinberg was introduced to the general public and the press as an independent arbiter. But in his ruling this week, Judge Barbier shook his head at that characterization, saying that what BP created in the Claims Facility was actually a hybrid, rather than a truly independent entity.
What does the ruling mean for those suffering through the claims process?
For one thing, the judge made it official: Claimants cannot depend upon Mr. Feinberg to keep their best interest in mind. He may be a good listener, and he may be as generous as he says, but only so far as BP will allow.
Mr. Feinberg is no slouch in the legal department, and he knows he is obligated to represent the clients, including the oil giant, that pay his firm.
Second, it is all the more important for people to comment on the criteria for final claims payments, which he recently announced. People have until Feb. 16 to offer feedback on the latest guidelines, and their comments are supposed to be made public.
If enough people make noise about failures they experience in the claims process, it is more likely that Mr. Feinberg will address them in the interest of settling disputes.
Indeed, BP does not want every frustrated client to give up on claims and sue instead.
As for Wednesday’s ruling, Judge Barbier deserves credit for clarifying Mr. Feinberg’s allegiance. Now, when the claims czar communicates with the people of the Gulf Coast, he’s going to have to lay out all the facts — including that he works on behalf of BP.
Editor’s note: View the claims criteria online at www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com. (See: Announcement Regarding Payment Options, Eligibility.) E-mail comments on the criteria to: MethodologyComments@gccf-claims.com.