In his direct and emphatic style, Ken Feinberg on Wednesday promised that starting Monday, he’d get money within 48 hours into the hands of individuals who can demonstrate losses due to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and get similar emergency payments to affected businesses in less than a week.
“It is optimistic, but people have been waiting and waiting and waiting to get paid,” Feinberg said. “I am determined to accelerate these payments. People have been waiting long enough.”
Saying “I don’t care what BP said,” the man who now holds $20 billion of BP’s money announced that he’ll essentially start the process anew when BP hands over control on Monday. Under his own review process and own parameters, he said he’ll pay every eligible claimant on an emergency basis for up to six months, without forcing anyone to waive their right to sue BP, before offering a take-it-or-leave-it final settlement. Upon accepting that settlement, the recipient must waive his right to sue.
“At 12:01 a.m. Monday morning, there is no more BP claims. It’s over,” Feinberg said at a hearing Thursday in Kenner. “BP claims are replaced by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. It is independent. It is not part of BP. It is not part of the government. It is an independent program and I am beholden to neither of them. I am working for you.”
Starting Monday and for the following three months, through Nov. 23, anyone adversely affected by the spill can file a form available at the same 35 claims centers BP was using or online at www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com. The website was not yet available as of Wednesday afternoon.
To guard against fraud, Feinberg said he’ll need to see documents legitimizing claims, but he said he wouldn’t be limited to the two years of prior year tax filings BP demanded. He said he’d take such alternative documentation as letters from boat captains vouching for deckhands, profit and loss statements, ledgers noting canceled orders or reservations.
BP is turning over all of the documentation it’s already collected from claimants, Feinberg said, so anyone who has started the process under the corporation’s management, whether or not they’ve received any money, will not have to begin anew. But, he said, everyone, even those who have already filed claims with BP, must file a new form with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
Feinberg says his emergency claims process is a nod to claimants, particularly business owners, who have been shortchanged or told to wait.
Asked about a Times-Picayune investigation last week that found BP had quietly decided to halve all August advances for approved business claims, Feinberg invited those hurt by that decision to file a quick new form with his outfit and collect emergency payments on up to six months of losses within a week.
Claimants can collect monthly payments or up to six months worth of payments at once, he said. They can choose to have the payments, which will be handled by Whitney Bank, routed to their checking account, in the form of a check or in cash, although cash payments will be limited to up to $5,000 a day.
Feinberg made it clear that claimants will not have to waive their right to sue to collect emergency payments. After the 90-day emergency period, however, claimants will be offered final payment by Feinberg’s team. If they accept it, they must waive the right to sue BP, Feinberg said.
If the offer is not acceptable to the claimant, Feinberg said he’ll set up a review panel comprised of his staff and community liaisons, and if that second determination is not acceptable, the claimant will have the right to refuse the settlement and sue BP, without having to give up any of the payments they already received.
He said he would make pro-bono lawyers and accountants available and wasn’t discouraging claimants from hiring representation, but he also denied suggestions that his process would be too complicated for individuals to tackle without an advocate.
“If they want a lawyer and accountant, that’s entirely up to them — I like lawyers and accountants,” Feinberg said. “It’s not too complicated. It’s rather simple, to tell you the truth, because you don’t have to resubmit your documentation; that’s transferred from the old BP system. So, you have to fill out a new form because we’re talking about six months of compensation, not one month. We’re talking about recognizing claims BP didn’t recognize or held in abeyance. We will revisit every finding. Even claims that received nothing are given another look.”
About 250 people attended the hearing. While introducing Feinberg, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said that in addition to $20 billion set aside for Feinberg to pay claims against BP, the company and other possible responsible parties could be on the hook for billions in fines, which would feed the federal oil spill trust fund. Landrieu has filed a bill in Congress to have 80 percent of any fines sent to Gulf Coast states, instead. A top Obama aide has said the White House would support earmarking the penalty money specifically to coastal restoration efforts.
At least 100 Vietnamese fishers and their families were in the audience, and a system to allow simultaneous interpreting of Landrieu and Feinberg’s statements malfunctioned. Feinberg said he’d do all he could to make sure Vietnamese and other foreign-language services were available at claims centers, on the website and over the phone.
Feinberg said he understood that people may not trust him because his law firm is being paid by BP and is distributing BP’s money. But the former administrator for Agent Orange claims after the Vietnam War and for Sept. 11 claims after the 2001 terrorist attacks said he wants to earn that trust with fair, quick payments.
He said he would release his methods for determining eligibility and payment in the coming days, but he said he wouldn’t shy away from handling different situations differently.
He said the easiest claims to find eligible are the ones where a business or individual makes money directly off the Gulf waters, but added that he wouldn’t be limited by geography. He also said he will pay emergency claims to all those “damaged or perceived to be damaged by the spill,” making it clear that losses stemming from largely unsubstantiated concerns about visiting Gulf beaches or eating Gulf seafood will be honored.
To a woman asking about her dead oyster beds, Feinberg said he’ll be able to authorize emergency payments for the lost oysters and the damaged beds, but he said he won’t pay under the emergency process for restoring the beds.
He said he was “sort of reluctant to subsidize legitimate nonprofits to assist claimants when I have lawyers and others ready to step in and help pro-bono.” He didn’t rule out all help to nonprofits, but when asked about food banks and temporary shelter programs that have gotten money from BP, he said definitively that was “not in my purview.”
Landrieu separately said she would work to help some of the nonprofit groups, but she didn’t feel the BP claims fund was meant for that.