Gulf paymaster: People are in ‘desperate’ shape

Tuesday, June 22, 2010
By Paul Martin

WASHINGTON (AP) — The man President Obama picked to run the $20 billion Gulf oil spill damage fund said Monday that many people are in “desperate financial straits” and need immediate relief.

“Do not underestimate the emotionalism and the frustration and the anger of people in the Gulf uncertain of their financial future,” Kenneth Feinberg told interviewers. “It’s very pronounced. I witnessed it firsthand last week.”

Mr. Feinberg, who ran the victims claim fund set up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, said he is determined to speed up payment of claims.

His appearance came a week after the administration worked out an arrangement with oil giant BP to establish an independent claims fund — initially $20 billion — and pledged to reconfigure the system and expedite payments.

Mr. Feinberg said BP has paid out over $100 million so far, and various estimates place total claims so far in excess of $600 million.

“The top message is the message conveyed to me by the president,” Mr. Feinberg said. “We want to get these claims out quicker. We want to get these claims out with more transparency.”

Mr. Feinberg said people can file electronically for relief, if they wish, and they need not hire a lawyer. He also said he believes that “when a person comes in and asks for emergency assistance, they shouldn’t have to keep coming back,” suggesting lump-sum emergency payments.

Asked how officials can guard against false claims, Mr. Feinberg said he didn’t think that would be a major problem and said that in the 9/11 experience there were only a handful of such claims. He did say there could be an issue involving claimants who say they were indirectly harmed by the spill, such as a Boston restaurateur theoretically arguing that his business was hurt by the inability to bring shrimp in from the Gulf.

In such instances, Mr. Feinberg said, officials might have to resort to whatever existing state law says on that issue.

In another interview, he said, “The emergency payments going out under my watch do not require that any claimant give up rights to litigate or go forward in court. . . . If you want to litigate, go ahead.”

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