Kenneth Feinberg couldn’t have been clearer: In December, the oil spill claims czar told claimants who had already received emergency payments from him that they could sign away their right to sue, collect one more check within 14 days and be done with the whole process, with “no further review.”
But the truth is that some who sought the so-called quick payment – $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for businesses – are definitely facing “further review.” In fact, some are now under investigation for fraud, and not all deservedly so.
The Gulf Coast Claims Facility’s website clearly states quick payments will be made within 14 days with no further review, so the apparent contradiction is confounding for some claimants, especially given the program’s admitted lack of transparency. On the other hand, critics have said that offering a quick payment with no further review almost invites fraud.
Julie Queen of New Orleans, a housekeeping supervisor at Marriott’s Residence Inn downtown who also works as a banquet hostess, has been cleared to get her quick payment for damages resulting from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but not before she was kept in the dark for weeks for an investigation that contradicted the GCCF’s “no further review” protocol and ultimately proved unnecessary.
She sent in her tax returns, student loan documents and pay stubs, and got a $2,000 emergency payment in October to start recovering on her $11,000 claim. On Dec. 20, she signed her waiver promising not to sue, starting the clock on a $5,000 quick payment. It wouldn’t cover her total loss, but it would be a big help and let her be done with BP.
The two weeks passed: nothing. Finally, on Jan. 21, a month after GCCF received her quick payment claim, she received a letter stating the claims facility had re-reviewed the documentation she’d filed to support her emergency claim and found “insufficient reliable evidence to support your Quick Payment claim.” Her file had been handed over to Guidepost Investigations, GCCF’s anti-fraud subcontractor. Befuddled, she sent e-mail inquiries for weeks and was eventually put in touch with Mark Weinstein, a paralegal who works for Feinberg and once ran the Washington National Opera for part of Feinberg’s term as the opera’s president.
“He said he can’t give me any more information, but all he knows is it’s not for fraud,” Queen said. “Mark said they just pull some people out (for Guidepost review) at random, like when you’re going through security at the airport.”
Feinberg later told The Times-Picayune that is “categorically untrue” and he didn’t know why Weinstein was telling claimants that.
“We only investigate those claims where the documentation or a whistleblower or a telephone call calls them into question,” Feinberg said.
Guidepost and Weinstein did not respond to requests for comment.
After hearing about Queen’s story from the newspaper, Feinberg checked on it and found out it was legitimate. Queen’s claim had gotten caught up in an investigation involving the verification of employment of a large group of purported Marriott employees. He said it would be cleared for payment immediately.
“Oh my goodness,” Queen said when she learned what Feinberg had found. “If that happened to me, I wonder how many other people are going through this.”
That’s hard to say. Feinberg said his staff are dealing with more than 8,000 cases they consider highly suspicious, many of which may need to be turned over to the Justice Department. It’s unclear how many of those are filing for quick payments, expecting to get more cash without any more scrutiny.
More than 91,000 claimants – more than half of those who have been paid to date – have filed for quick payments since the option was introduced in mid-December, and fewer than 4,000 are still waiting on payment. In most cases, it’s simply a question of processing the claims as they come in. But an unknown number – Feinberg says it’s “infinitesimal” – are cloaked in a new shroud of secrecy.
Alicia Johnson, the owner of a guided-tour company in New Orleans called Alicia’s Transportation, said she was in the dark about her quick claim until a Guidepost investigator called her Monday night and told her that someone on her same street, with the same last name, had filed a claim involving the same type of business. She said the man told her he was coming to her house today for a closer look.
“I’ve got my two vehicles in the yard, my tax returns. He can look at whatever he wants. I just need to get this resolved so I can get back operating,” Johnson said. “I talked to a lady in Mississippi who said they came out to her house in December and she still hasn’t seen anything.”
David Hammer can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3322.