Time for Kenneth Feinberg to go


Kenneth Feinberg must go.

Clearly, the oil spill claims czar has done all he’s going to do for the people of the Gulf Coast. It’s not nearly enough — and we’re out of time.

The people down here have been starving for claims payments for months. Since Mr. Feinberg took over the process from BP on Aug. 23, his Gulf Coast Claims Facility has tossed them just enough crumbs to barely keep them alive.

At a time when business owners should be planning for their long-term recovery, they cannot — because they are still struggling to keep their doors open. Until there’s a change at the top and claims are finally paid, the Gulf Coast will not bounce back from the BP oil spill.

People’s hearts were heavy when President Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office in June, but he gave them hope as he promised: “We will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

Replacing Mr. Feinberg has now become what’s necessary. The system he established to help the people of the Gulf Coast is no longer working.

Sure, some emergency payments have gone out. For a little while they even surged, but then slowed to a trickle again. When the people cry out, Mr. Feinberg hands them a little more, but rarely enough to make them whole.

Business owners — entrepreneurs who are proud of their livelihoods — should not be treated like beggars when they neither caused nor asked for their plight.

The cruelest part is that claimants have no recourse and no one to hear their appeals. Gov. Bob Riley is right to call it “extortion” when Mr. Feinberg forces businesses to prematurely sign away the right to sue BP. But what real options do the businesses have? They can continue to wait for emergency payments, or they can request a final lump sum and sign away their legal rights.

Adding insult to injury, there is little rhyme or reason for some claims being paid in full and others being partially paid or not at all.

In the kingdom of Kenneth Feinberg, inconsistency rules. Too much of the claims money remains hidden deep inside his vault, which BP has promised to stock with $20 billion. Clearly, it’s going to take someone other than Mr. Feinberg to unlock it.

This time of year, people like Sheila Hodges, owner of Meyer Real Estate in Gulf Shores, should be ordering catalogs and placing advertisements for next summer’s tourist season. But how can she, when she is getting less than 10 percent of the claim she filed on behalf of her company?

In Bayou La Batre, Belinda Wilkerson — who owns shrimp and oyster boats with her husband, Coy — says that every time the couple submits paperwork to the Claims Facility, “they want something else.”

When Mr. Feinberg visited the Alabama Gulf Coast, he appeared to listen sympathetically to folks who shed tears as they asked for his help. He acknowledged problems and promised repeatedly that things would get better. But that “better” proved to be temporary.

Remember what the claims czar said when he took the job? “The only way you trust me is if, over the next few weeks and months, the money is going out in a fair and consistent fashion.”

Those weeks and months are now gone, and so is the trust. Mr. Feinberg has failed his own test.

It’s time for President Obama, who appointed him five months ago, to fire Kenneth Feinberg.

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

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