Kenneth Feinberg, who doled out compensation to the families of Sept. 11 victims, will now determine who gets what from the $20-billion account set up for those affected by the gulf oil spill.
Kenneth Feinberg specializes in determining the value of things — the film of a president’s assassination, the life of a Sept. 11 victim, the time of a Wall Street executive.
His latest assignment — protecting and saving the livelihood of thousands who depend on the oil-stained Gulf of Mexico for survival — may prove to be the most complex.
Feinberg was chosen this week to administer a $20-billion fund set up to help the fishermen, shrimpers, shop owners and others whose ability to make a living has been hampered by the spill. Under pressure from the Obama administration, BP agreed to put the money in an escrow account and allow Feinberg, an independent mediator and sort of freelance sage, to create a system for doling it out.
With potentially millions of claims, the assignment could dwarf the size of his most high-profile task, though not likely its emotional charge. As special master for the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, Feinberg developed a system for determining what the lives of those killed in the terrorist attacks were worth to the families they left behind. He handed out nearly $7 billion to more than 5,000 people, largely winning high marks for his empathy and fairness.
“He is a force of nature,” said Leo Boyle, a Boston-based trial attorney who represented the families seeking compensation from the fund. “He holds no grudges. He looks at things on the merits. He plays no favorites and he calls balls and strikes.”
Feinberg, a 64-year-old Boston-bred Washington attorney, came to that job after making a career as a well-connected mediator with a reputation for navigating to the middle through rough terrain.
He first became known for helping settle a class-action lawsuit filed by Vietnam veterans opposed to the use of Agent Orange. The $180-million deal was at the time the largest in U.S. history. He later helped settle the Dalkon Shield defective contraception case, and ran the fund for victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
A former top aide to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Feinberg helped determine the fair market value on the Zapruder video of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Last year, he was named the Obama administration’s “pay czar” and asked to determine the compensation for Wall Street and auto company executives who received bailout funds. In the Treasury Department post, Feinberg cut many executive salaries to below $500,000, heeding the populist call to trim excess over the fierce opposition from Wall Street.
But Feinberg called the Sept. 11 fund his most daunting task. Initially described as cool and aloof, he won over the skeptical and heartbroken by devoting hours of personal face time to hearing stories.
He held meetings allowing victims’ families to tell their stories and set up a system that allowed nearly anyone to request that he personally hear a claim. Feinberg says he sat through more than 900 hearings.
“Don’t underestimate listening. Do not underestimate listening,” he told interviewer Charlie Rose on PBS.
It is unlikely that Feinberg, who grew up in the working class of Brockton, Mass., will be able to lend such a personal touch to the BP fund. Although relatively few details are known about how the fund will operate, experts suspect it could draw millions of claimants, some filing repeatedly as long as economic hardships continue. The fund will not be limited to $20 billion, the White House said.
The vast majority of claims will probably be filed by those seeking to recover from economic loss — a term yet to be defined specifically.
“This is going to be very, very complex and very complicated,” said Daniel Becnel, a Louisiana attorney who said he expected his firm to handle 100,000 claims related to the spill. “It will depend how far up the ladder they go. The guy who owns a crab restaurant in Maryland, he’s going to be paying more for his crabs. Does he have an economic claim? We don’t know the answer to that question.”
The BP account will be different from the Sept. 11 fund in others ways as well, experts note.
“We have a corporate wrongdoing and an oil spill of epic proportions. The extent of the damage will not be known for years,” said Anthony Tarricone, president of the American Assn. for Justice, formerly the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America. The group said it supported the fund as long as it was not capped and did not block an individual’s right to turn to the courts.
“What we hope is that this fund will be an adjunct to the courts.…The primary way that they will be held accountable is through the civil justice system,” Tarricone said.