Indian tribes, bayou residents meet with oil spill claims czar


MONTEGUT — Several hundred people, members of local American Indian tribes and bayou residents, packed the Montegut gym Friday night to learn about the New York company that wants to handle Terrebonne and Lafourche oil-spill claims and ask questions of Gulf Coast claims chief Ken Feinberg.

Feinberg, who spent 30 minutes taking questions from residents, said he is interested in learning more about local American Indians who lived off the land and had the option of filing a claim for being kept from local waters during the oil spill. Fiduciary Management Group, a New York group helping members of local tribes, set up the meeting with Feinberg.

“Unlike lost-income claims, which concern wages, a subsistence claim says, ‘I live off Gulf resources. I eat fish I catch and game I hunt, and since the spill, I’ve been no longer able to live off the resources of the Gulf. Now I have to buy these things, and my lifestyle has been adversely impacted. It’s costing me in dollars and cents,’ ” Feinberg said.

He added that the Gulf Coast Claims Facility believes there are valid subsidence claims to be made, but it has had issues figuring out how to prove them. Lost income can be proved with receipts and records, but how do you prove your family has lived off what it catches?

“These claims should be paid, but I want to avoid a situation where someone just writes me a letter saying, ‘I live off the Gulf. Now pay me,’ ” Feinberg said.

Feinberg was appointed last year by President Obama to oversee a $20 billion fund established to compensate Gulf Coast residents impacted by the BP oil spill. But many residents, especially those working in the seafood industry, have criticized his handling of the fund.

Fiduciary Management Group charges a fee to help locals handle claims. Ivan Thornton, the financial group’s managing partner, told the crowd the fee will be no more than 1 to 5 percent of any lump-sum settlement reached by the group, and there will be no charges up front. He said the money will pay staff working the case.

Fiduciary Management Group, which has experience in managing lump-sum payments for victims of 9/11 and other settlements, will help calculate loss projections, prepare data and file documents to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

“We know that when many people receive lump settlements, 85 percent of people blow it in the first two years,” Thornton said.

The financial group initially approached some of the tribes to help structure and manage any large payments they would receive. But the group saw the residents were having problems getting payments in the first place, Thornton said.

“We’re not looking for a jackpot, we simply want to remain whole,” said Shirell Parfait Dardar, deputy chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians. “This has been going on for almost a year now, and we’re being stretched thin.”

Dardar said this is a good opportunity for local American Indians. Among those working with the New York group are leaders of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, which has members across Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, as well as the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, whose members have roots to the bayou that bears the tribe’s name.

“These guys are very experienced, and they have our best interest at heart,” Dardar said. “They don’t get involved unless there’s an injustice being done.”

Bonita Boudoin, a Grand Caillou resident, United Houma Nation member and an organizer with bayou nonprofit BISCO, said it is good that the group is stepping up to help residents manage spill settlements. But she questioned the lack of locals working with the New York financial group and the percentage they’ll take.

Thornton said his group came up with a plan to make a case for subsidence claims for bayou residents and showed it to Feinberg. He added that while they believe subsidence claims for American Indian residents are an important part of the process they can help with, they will help all locals.

This isn’t bayou residents’ only option for filing claims, he added. You can go at it alone, and there are nonprofit groups and lawyers also willing to help.

If locals do sign on, they will have the option of turning down any settlement offer and proceeding with a lawsuit. But Thornton warned the process can get lengthy.

“We worked with the 9/11 Survivor’s Fund, and that was 10 years ago,” Thornton said. “People who didn’t take the lump sum then and went to court didn’t see any payments until this November.”

Thornton said his group’s goal in these settlement situations is to be “first in, first out.” They’ve made plans with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility that they believe will allow them to reach a settlement in three to four months. “But we’ll be down here as long as it takes,” Thornton said.

Residents who want to sign up to get help from Fiduciary Management Group can go to the Montegut gym, 106 Recreation Drive, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today. You’ll need to provide identification for each claimant.

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