STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The administrator of BP's $20 billion fund to compensate oil spill victims is on the defensive. The claim czar is Kenneth Feinberg. He's facing a wave of criticism about the slow pace and low amount of payments. Here's a sense of the scale of the issue. Low payments mean he's paid out only $3.5 billion. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Twin sisters Sheila Newman and Sheryl Lindsay have seen their once thriving beach wedding business nearly go under since the oil washed ashore in Orange Beach, Alabama last summer. Brides cancelled, and few are booking this year. Newman says they've lost two-thirds of their business.
Ms. SHEILA NEWMAN (Wedding Planner): It's hard to put a dollar figure on it because mentally we've lost a lot.
ELLIOTT: NPR has been following the sisters' struggle to get paid since last August, when we found them begging a BP claims adjuster to look at their case.
Ms. NEWMAN: We're closing our doors. We're losing everything we have within the next week. We need help today.
ELLIOTT: BP never paid. The wedding planners closed their storefront and operated from home. Both took on second jobs to pay the bills.
When Ken Feinberg took over managing the claims process, they were hopeful they would recoup the $240,000 they'd lost. Six weeks later, the check came. It was for $7,700 - a fraction of their claim. Newman says there was no explanation of how Feinberg came up with that figure.
Ms. SHEILA NEWMAN (Wedding Planner): I think he's just trying to wear everybody down. They'll take such a small amount and just give up. And they sign that dotted line that they're not going to sue. That's - I think that's his goal.
ELLIOTT: For most spill victims, Feinberg is offering final settlements of twice 2010 losses, based on assumptions that the Gulf would fully recover by the end of next year. Newman says she's not signing anything until business is back to where it was before the oil spill. The wedding planners are opting instead to file interim claims every three months, but they're frustrated that they haven't received any money since September. And they're not the only ones.
Representative JO BONNER (Republican, Alabama): The people of the Gulf Coast are sick and tired of being lied to, time after time after time.
ELLIOTT: That's Alabama Congressman Jo Bonner. The Republican is part of a growing chorus of lawmakers pressuring Feinberg to get more money flowing. Bonner says when President Obama announced that Feinberg would take over, everyone thought he would be an advocate.
Rep. BONNER: And yet what we have seen, it looks like, is a miser hoarding the money to protect BP's interests while these innocent victims continue to just struggle and hope. It's almost like they want us to say thank you when they give us a crumb off the king's table.
ELLIOTT: A New Orleans federal judge ordered Feinberg to quit saying he's independent from BP, given that the company pays his law firm $850,000 a month.
Even the U.S. Justice Department wants to see payments stepped up. In a letter, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli said Feinberg's job is not to return money to BP, but to help people struggling after the oil disaster.
But in court filings and at Gulf Coast meetings, Feinberg defends his program and the $3.5 billion he's paid out as nothing short of extraordinary.
Mr. KENNETH FEINBERG (Administrator, BP Claims Fund): We are doing something right.
ELLIOTT: That's what he told members of the Florida legislature last week.
Representative Doug Broxson of Gulf Breeze disagrees.
Representative DOUG BROXSON (Republican, Florida): You have created the perfect system to frustrate our constituents and not pay.
ELLIOTT: Feinberg says he's getting complaints from both sides. BP says he's being too generous, while local officials say he's being tight-fisted.
Mr. FEINBERG: I agree that there's a great deal of frustration, and I come back down here and listen to these concerns. The idea that the Gulf Coast claims facility is not serving the people of Florida is simply untrue. There are problems that need to be fixed.
Ms. ALLISON DAVENPORT (Chamber of Commerce, Perdido Key, Florida): It's already too late for many businesses.
ELLIOTT: Real estate broker Allison Davenport is the vice chair of the Chamber of Commerce in Perdido Key, Florida. She's spearheading an effort to get the White House's attention.
Ms. DAVENPORT: If somebody taps you for the job, they could un-tap you for the job.
ELLIOTT: Davenport says it's time for President Obama to step in and make a change.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.