Vietnamese fishers struggle to document for Feinberg gifts they gave from the heart


If you’ve never heard tell of a congregation “pounding the preacher,” don’t feel bad. The aunt who explained it to me said the term is so country that even she hadn’t heard it before. It sounds violent and rebellious, something the Apostle Paul would write a nice long letter condemning, but pounding the preacher is what a congregation of cash-poor believers does to show its gratitude, usually to an evangelist who’s preached that week’s revival.

Friday night, after all the preaching’s been done and all the willing souls have been saved, a grateful congregant presents the visiting preacher with a few pounds of flour; another with a bag or two of sugar. Somebody else might offer up eggs, some chicken, a ham, some butter. Thus, the preacher leaves the church well compensated, even if no dollars have been placed in his pocket.

Most of the preachers I knew growing up were men of great girth. If they were getting pounded regularly – or parking their feet beneath each member’s dinner table – it’s no wonder they’d be so big.

But more than explaining how so many country preachers got to be rotund, the pounding concept illustrates how people can comfortably “buy,” “sell” and trade for items they need without exclusively relying on folding money, jingling money, checks or plastic.

Many Vietnamese fishers say they conducted many of their financial affairs in similar fashion before this year’s horrific BP oil spill. They ate their catch rather than buying it from the store. If they needed fruits or vegetables, they acquired it by trading their catch. They pounded their friends during joyous occasions.

“Every time a friend had a birthday party, instead of a gift, I’d give seafood,” Phuong Nguyen, a local fisher harmed by the oil spill said. “At weddings, the same. I’d give a couple hundred pounds of crab, or when the local church has its annual fair, I might give four to five hundred pounds, at times even a thousand to help the church make money.”

The Gulf Coast Claims Facility, managed by claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg, is in charge of distributing the $20 billion that BP is relinquishing to compensate those whose livelihoods were upended by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the 86-day leak of oil that followed. Feinberg has said repeatedly that he is eager to give away the money and that he isn’t going to make applicants leap through all sorts of hoops if he is reasonably certain that they’re honest about their losses. However, the Vietnamese fishers making a Subsistence Use of Natural Resources claim have been frustrated by Feinberg’s demand that they provide documentation of the trading they did before the spill.

Documentation? What kind of documents are there going to be to show that so-and-so caught and consumed so many pounds of crab? And if, as some of the fishers claim, their bartering was a system that helped them “live in harmony” with one another, keeping detailed records would seem to be counterproductive. Oh, you only give me 200 lbs of crabs for my daughter’s wedding when I gave you 300 for yours?

As of last week 16,858 applicants had made a loss of subsistence claim with Feinberg’s office. One of them had been successful. Those are worse than Road Home numbers!

Feinberg is in an unenviable position. To say that everybody’s claim has merit would invite fraud. To deny claims based on the absence of documentation would be culturally insensitive and most certainly leave out people who – through no fault of their own – have suffered greatly.

“A claimaint needs to show documentation on their heritage, their history, their having lived off the land,” Amy Weiss, a spokeswoman for Feinberg wrote in an e-mail message last week. “The (Gulf Coast Claims Facility) will then work with the claimants to personally tailor the claim.”

Phuong Nguyen, Thien Nguyen and Ve Nguyen thought they’d done just that. The Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation calculated local retail prices for seafood and multiplied it by the amount the three applicants testified that they’d brought into the community. Phuong Nguyen received a denial letter two weeks ago. His claim was said to lack supporting documentation.

His friends may remember him giving generously, but because he didn’t give money, Feinberg’s treating it like he never gave anything at all.

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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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