ORANGE BEACH, Alabama – Oil spill claims czar Ken Feinberg and Mayor Tony Kennon continued to tussle today about paying individuals and businesses along the coast in a sometimes-contentious town hall-style meeting before a crowd of several hundred people.
Kennon said he has noticed improvements in the claims process, but told a crowd that included elected leaders from Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and the Florida panhandle that he was still not satisfied.
“Every person who wants a dime is eligible,” Kennon said. “And I won’t shut up until you get it.”
Feinberg said the program had entered a “new phase.” He gave claimants one of three options: an interim payment, a final payment, or quick claim — $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for businesses.
Feinberg said he would post his methodology on final payments within the next two weeks on his operation’s website.
He said that 12,000 people in Alabama had accepted quick payments. A denial on an emergency claim would not preclude someone from filing again, he added.
Kennon was concerned that several business owners were not being paid in full, while illegitimate claims were being paid.
“You can give away all the money you want,” Kennon said. “But if it’s not going into the right hands at the right time, it means nothing.”
Feinberg told the audience that final and interim payments would begin next month, and he would immediately address emergency payments for those who “can’t wait.”
Feinberg also announced that he had retained Jim Walker, former director of the state’s Homeland Security under Gov. Bob Riley, to help oversee the claims facilities.
Kennon asked members of the audience to stand “if you’ve not had a good experience.” Nearly everyone rose. Several people stood again when Kennon asked if they had received less than half of what they claimed.
Florida state representative Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, told Feinberg “the system is broken.”
Feinberg said he was “beefing up” local offices.
“We’re moving forward and we’re getting the money out as fast as we can,” he said. “We’re going to be as generous as we can, and we’ll work to try and make it more transparent and open.”
At one point, after Gulf Shores Councilman Jason Dyken graded the process an F for having paid out only 30 percent of the claims in Alabama, Kennon accused Feinberg of being condescending.
Kennon had asked for a record of gross claims and gross payments.
Feinberg said that if all claims were paid in full the total would reach close to $90 billion, as two people had individually claimed $20 billion, the entire amount set aside by BP. More than 100,000 claims were filed without documentation, he added.
“We’re statistically savvy enough to know how to use the numbers just like you do,” Kennon responded.
Feinberg said, “You’ll get the numbers.”
In closing remarks, Sen. Jeff Sessions noted the tension.
“When I see the mayor and Mr. Feinberg together, it’s the battle of the titans,” Sessions said. “Mr. Feinberg is about as good an advocate as I’ve had the pleasure to see, but he doesn’t have anything on Tony Kennon.”
In Bayou La Batre earlier in the day, Feinberg told a crowd of about 150 people that he had been fair to fishers and is not purposefully holding back money so people are forced to settle.
One woman asked Feinberg why he was so hard on people in the seafood industry.
“I don’t think I am,” he responded. “I’ve given hundreds of millions of dollars to the seafood industry. I may have made some mistakes, but I’m trying to get as much money to people who work in the seafood industry as possible.”
Another woman accused him of making small emergency payments to people on purpose so they are forced to take final settlement offers, which require claimants to sign away their right to sue BP PLC.
“Starve and settle — I disagree with that,” Feinberg said after the meeting. “In five months we’ve paid out more than $3 billion. A good majority of the claimants have been treated fairly.”
Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright said he thinks his area has gotten a short shrift in the oil spill recovery effort and claims process.
“Baldwin County’s gotten a lot of attention. They’re cleaning sand over there,” Wright said. “We need food on our table, too,” he said. “We need to harvest our seafood and sell our product. We need money now.”