Feinberg promises improvement for claimants

Overqualified for job could be most qualified
January 19, 2011
Lucille LaFleur
January 21, 2011
Overqualified for job could be most qualified
January 19, 2011
Lucille LaFleur
January 21, 2011

Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of $20 billion in funds designated to pay individuals and businesses for damages suffered from the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, told approximately 500 people at the East Houma Gym last Tuesday that he intends to improve the claims process to their satisfaction.

Matt O’Brien was among those in attendance. O’Brien, of Venice, opened a wholesale shrimp purchasing business at the beginning of 2010. Only a few months after he started he was forced to shut down operations due to the oil spill.

“I’m upset. I know people who have gotten big claims and I still haven’t received any money,” O’Brien said of his application status while waiting for Feinberg to arrive. “This is my first year in business so I don’t have a long track record, but I borrowed and spent over $2 million. When [Feinberg] was assigned initially to this he said those closest to the event would be paid first. But there are claims getting settled all over the country that are far removed from this incident and here I am at ground zero. The formula for distributing money is a complete failure as far as I’m concerned.”

Prior to the public meeting BP Director of Government and Public Affairs Curtis Thomas told the Tri-Parish Times he had good expectations for Feinberg’s Louisiana appearance. “I hope that people will take advantage of the opportunity to speak to Mr. Feinberg and to question [him] about the claims,” Thomas said.

Area residents and businesspersons listened and were not hesitant to express their concerns.

Feinberg opened by telling those in attendance that a new start in the claims operation was underway with an absolute deadline of Aug. 23, 2013. “The emergency payment program is over. Now we are entering a new phase of the program,” Feinberg said.

For his part, Feinberg offered a consolatory tone and told those in attendance that they have three options when it comes to settling claims with BP through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

The first option would allow claimants to apply for a single lump-sum payment for damages, but surrender their right to sue BP. A second option would allow claimants to apply for quarterly damage payments and reserve the right to sue. The third option offers claimants who have already received an emergency payment to accept a one-time $5,000 payment for individuals or $25,000 for a business to settle future claims and surrender their right to sue.

“So far in the last three weeks about 65,000 people in the Gulf have taken the third option,” Feinberg said. “About 70,000 people and businesses have filed a final payment and about 10,000 people and businesses have filed for an interim payment.

“I do not favor one option over another. I think everybody ought to consider their own situation and decide for themselves. The final payment and the interim payment will be available the first week of February. The quick payment is ready now,” he said.

Feinberg admitted that he had received a lot of criticism about how the claims program had been operated and said he had brought in additional people from Louisiana to help staff the claims centers. In total, Feinberg said, there were approximately 30,000 people working at 35 claims offices and electronic processing centers.

Following the meeting, Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said the presence of local residents working in the claims center was nothing new.

Feinberg went on to offer legal counsel to those in need. “If you want a lawyer and cannot afford a lawyer, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility working with the Mississippi Center for Justice will give you a lawyer if you want one, if you can’t afford one, for free,” he said. “About 400 people so far have requested a lawyer.”

Within the next month, Feinberg said, a new calculation procedure for interim and final payments will be established. “In order to develop that methodology we need the shrimp associations, shrimping people, charter boat associations, oyster people to make sure their final payment calculation takes into account the unique situation of fishermen, shrimpers, oyster harvesters,” he said.

Feinberg acknowledged knowing that some people have had claims denied, received inadequate compensation or have heard nothing back from the GCCF.

Claudet said he had wanted Feinberg to explain the claims process in greater detail and respond to why inconsistencies exist.

“I [would like to know] why some people are getting paid and why some who appear to have completed all the documentation and filled out all the forms are not getting paid. It causes constant frustration for our residents,” Claudet said.

“To date, Terrebonne Parish alone has had nearly $90 million paid by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility paid into area businesses and to residents. We feel that figure should be substantially higher,” Claudet said.

Feinberg told attendees that when they make a final claim application their emergency payments would be reviewed and corrected. He said he understands there are people who need immediate action and said that the GCCF will review claims.

“We’re trying to do right by you folks. Have we made mistakes? Yes. Has there been inconsistency in some cases? Yes. But remember, we’ve paid out in the last five months $3 billion in the Gulf. The most in Louisiana, over $1 billion,” Feinberg said.

Promises of what could come failed to match the concern of area residents regarding what has already taken place and what they would like to have happen now.

“I think we need an option four,” said Houma attorney Jeri Smitko. “There are people who in nine months have not received a dollar [on their claims].”

Smitko accused Feinberg of presenting Gulf coast residents a carrot on a stick. “You’re saying, now apply for a final payment, apply for an interim payment and look at the fact that your emergency payment was denied. I have clients who own wholesale seafood businesses, [and] who have restaurants in Grand Isle, [and] who are charter boat captains, and their emergency payments, after trying for nine months, were just denied. You paying out $3 billion makes not one iota of difference to a person who hasn’t received a dime,” Smitko said.

Feinberg said that some claimants could take a fourth option. “If there are people who have not yet heard the status of their emergency payment, or even were denied you think unfairly, and they can’t wait another 35 or 40 days for a final payment or an interim payment let me have the name of those clients and the claim numbers. I will get to this as fast as I can and meet with one of my Louisiana people here today, give them the list, we’ll get right back to you on that.

“Before we post stop processing final and interim claims, so you will know calculation, for transparency we will post that on the Internet,” he said.

All the technology and promised postings meant little to Dwondald Hinton of Houma. Hinton said he had worked as a caterer on an offshore platform before the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. When the drilling moratorium hit he lost his job and began experiencing hardships he had previously worked to avoid.

“If it were not for the BP oil spill I’d still be working. When the BP oil spill occurred I thought everything would be all right. And BP hasn’t made it right either. Even small time drug dealers that never worked a day in their lives are awarded counsel. I’ve had my home foreclosed on. I’ve had my car reposed. Today I am homeless, unemployed and I live on meals from a local soup kitchen,” Hinton said. “When we had an economic meltdown [the government] bailed out the industry. Now, who’s going to bail me out?”

Numerous people commented on not having claims approved or having them lost in the process. Feinberg said that some did not sound like legitimate claims.

“I feel like we got more information than in the past,” said Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph following the meeting. “I don’t know how helpful it is because I see the looks in people’s faces and there is some concern. I hope we can get them some help soon. I hope we can get some clarity.”

“Mr. Feinberg has an excellent manner in handling people,” Claudet said. “Particularly people who are not [as] happy as they could be. Some of the items that we had today? None of it was new to me. Most of it was old hat and that’s pretty much what took place.”

“It’s very understandable,” Feinberg told the Tri-Parish Times following the public meeting. “People are angry, they are frustrated, they are not certain about their financial future. That’s why I come down here to listen. You have to hear this. We’re going to try to deal with some of these complaints.”

This was Feinberg’s fourth visit to the area since the claims process was first established.

Woodmen of the World field representative Dwayne Garner was among those that offered questions and comments to Kenneth Feinberg during his most recent trip to Houma and southeast Louisiana last Tuesday at the East Houma Gym. CASEY GISCLAIR