NEAL CONAN, host:
A week ago, Kenneth Feinberg began his first day as administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund. He is better known as the BP claims czar. He brings remarkable experience to the job. He served as the special master of the September the 11th Victim Compensation Fund. He also headed a fund for families following the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.
Those assignments came freighted with controversy. This one does, too. Some state official say his plan is too restrictive. Others call him a tone deaf corporate shill. If you have questions about his priorities, we want to hear from you, especially if the oil spill has affected your life. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
Kenneth Feinberg joins us now in the phone from Martha's Vineyard. Nice to have you back in the program.
Mr. KENNETH FEINBERG (Administrator, BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund): Thank you very much. Good to be back.
CONAN: And this will obviously not be an easy job. You already have competing pressures of time. People want compensation now. On the other hand, other people say, hey, wait a minute, it could be years before we know the ultimate effects of this oil spill.
Mr. FEINBERG: Well that's right. I've tried to split the two questions in half. Anybody can file if they're eligible and can document their claim. For an emergency payment, right now, between now and November 23rd, just before Thanksgiving, if you're eligible and you document your claim, you'll be paid, no questions ask, no release required, no waiver of any rights.
After that, we'll deal with the much more controversial question of a lump sum payment for all present and future injuries.
CONAN: So, up until November 23rd, you're not even waiving your right to sue.
Mr. FEINBERG: That's right. It's absolutely unprecedented. Until November 23rd, if you're eligible, 'cause you may not be eligible. But if you're eligible and, very importantly, you must be able to at least provide minimal documentation of your damage, I will cut you a check without any waiver of any rights.
CONAN: And you've been spending time for the last couple of months down on the Gulf Coast. I wonder - I think you've held - well, I think, innumerable, was the figure I saw, town meetings. What have people been telling you?
Mr. FEINBERG: People are angry. They're frustrated. They're concerned about their financial future. Unlike 9/11 or Virginia Tech, there arent as many death or physical injury claims. This problem is largely, not completely, but largely a lost wages, lost income, financial problem rather than a personal injury case.
CONAN: So, a lot of people were saying, I'm a shrimper. I run a boat. And I would've made X thousands of dollars, but the fisheries had been closed. Can you give me compensation for that?
Mr. FEINBERG: That's correct. Now, my answer to that is, of course, I will. Prove it. Give me some indication. It doesn't have to be a tax return. It can be W2s. It can be a profit and a loss statement, a check book. It can be the statement of the ship's captain, the statement even of your priest. But prove that you've lost what you say youve lost. I can't just give away the money. I have to be ever vigilant about fraud. But I'll bend over backwards to help get you some emergency compensation.
CONAN: Here's an email from that point, from Walter(ph) in Crawfordville in Florida. I am a web developer with losses due to the spill, I lost two contracts worth $1,300 - $13,000, excuse me. What kind of proof do I need? This was six months of work I'm trying to replace.
Mr. FEINBERG: Show me your contracts that you lost. That's the simplest way. Show me the cancelled contracts. Also, show me where you were employed, where your business was. Was it on the Gulf? How close to the Gulf? And how directly impacted by the beaches and the fish and the shrimp and the oysters? And I'll try to do everything I can to get you paid.
CONAN: How close to the Gulf? Why does that matter?
Mr. FEINBERG: Well, proximity to the Gulf where the oil either appeared or was anticipated, or the perception was that there might be oil. I can't be paying claims from 50 states. But I will factor into the claim how close you are to the Gulf, geographic proximity. But also, how dependent was your business on the natural resources of the Gulf - like fishing, shrimping, as you say, oysters, sightseeing, charter or fish captains, charter boats, and what was your industry. It's a lot easier if you're a fisherman, a shrimp man, an oyster harvester or a ship boat captain, than if you're a motel 60 miles from the beach claiming injury because of the perception of oil.
CONAN: And so those are going to be a little bit more difficult to figure out.
Mr. FEINBERG: I would say so.
CONAN: And if this web developer were working for companies on the Gulf Coast that happened to be living in Salem, Oregon, presumably, he or she would still be eligible?
Mr. FEINBERG: Again, perhaps. I'd have to know exactly the relationship of the facts to the Gulf and to the spill, but yes.
CONAN: One of the controversies that has come up over your decision to put limits on settlements for boat owners and others who - they may have lost income from fishing, but on the other hand they also - during the cleanup, have been working for BP. You said they're still eligible for whatever they would have made fishing. But if they made money from BP, in the meantime, that has to be deducted.
Mr. FEINBERG: Of course. That's like the 9/11 fund where Congress said, all collateral sources of income must be deducted. There isn't a court in the United States, I think, that wouldn't require such mitigation. If you loss $5,000 a month fishing, because you couldn't fish, BP steps up and says, we'll mitigate your damage by putting you to work cleaning up the oil. So, although you're losing $5,000 a month, we'll pay you $3,000 a month to help, thereby minimizing the impact of your fishing income that's been lost. Well, any court would say that that requires mitigation or a deduction. There were fishermen who didn't - who weren't hired by BP, who are insisting that I deduct that amount as well.
CONAN: I'm sure you've heard people say in some of those town meetings, listen, if I knew that would be deducted from what I could collect from BP, I would just have stayed home.
Mr. FEINBERG: How much of an emergency is it? I mean, I must say I haven't heard that very much because the fishermen, the shrimpers in the Gulf confront, and continue to confront, a unprecedented financial emergency down there. I haven't heard any fishermen say, well, as long as I can get the $5,000 a month from BP anyway, why bother working? I haven't heard that from anybody. You're not sure you're going to get the 5,000, how quickly you're going to get the 5,000. Here's an opportunity to work to help mitigate the damage so you will be able to put food on the table and pay your mortgage, and that's the law. And I just think that's pretty obvious to most people.
CONAN: Kenneth Feinberg is the administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's get Herman(ph) on the line. Herman calling from St. Louis.
HERMAN (Caller): Mr. Feinberg, good afternoon.
Mr. FEINBERG: Good afternoon.
HERMAN: My question is, if I make the claim from the fund, is it your decision that they cannot file a law suit? And who has made that decision?
Mr. FEINBERG: Absolutely not. If you make a claim for an emergency payment from the fund between now and November 23rd, and you're eligible and you document your claim, you will receive that money without any waiver of any type on your behalf. Later on, next year or the year after or the year after that, if the fund offers you a lump sum payment for all present and future damage, only then would you be required to waive your right to litigate against BP. But between now and November 23rd, there was absolutely no preconditions on your receiving the money.
HERMAN: Who made that determination, Mr. Feinberg?
Mr. FEINBERG: I made - the emergency decision of no waiver, I made that determination after the administration in BP asked me together, jointly - to set up this voluntarily program. Nobody has to participate. And if you want to participate voluntarily, those are the options that you would have.
HERMAN: Do you consider that fair?
Mr. FEINBERG: Oh, I think it's fair in the sense that it's voluntary. No one has to - if you'd rather sue BP or anybody else, go right ahead. You don't have to participate in this program at all. It's purely voluntary. And secondly, I think it's very fair to tell fishermen and anybody else, between now and November, if you're in need of emergency financial assistance and you're eligible and you document your claim, you can receive that money without any waiver of any rights.
HERMAN: Thank you for your time, Mr. Feinberg.
Mr. FEINBERG: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Herman, thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is Walter(ph), Walter with us from Crawfordville in Florida.
WALTER (Caller): Hi and thank you for taking my call. I sent the email and you responded to my email about the documentation and I appreciate that, Mr. Feinberg.
Mr. FEINBERG: Thank you.
WALTER: What I was wondering is the length of time that it takes to get a claim through, when you're not directly related to the fishing industry or the Gulf. I'm three quarters of a mile from the Gulf and my two contracts were with fish industry businesses that were dropped due to the oil spill.
Mr. FEINBERG: It sounds to me like you're eligible, based on what you've told me, just now, over the telephone. Once your claim has been documented; once we have enough information to make a determination, we will make a determination if you're an individual, lost wages, within two days. And if you're a business, within seven days. Now, that's from the time we conclude that we've got enough to go on. But you shouldn't have to wait very long to get a ruling from the fund.
WALTER: Okay. One problem I had was that when I submitted my claim, they want me into manufacturing. And the documentation like profit and loss, and that type of thing, didn't really apply to my business model.
Mr. FEINBERG: What did you use in - did you provide anything in place of that documentation?
WALTER: Yes. I have a contract...
Mr. FEINBERG: Good.
WALTER: ...that was cancelled. And I also have all the code that was written.
Mr. FEINBERG: Well, I think - again, I can't speak for what BP did before I arrived last Monday, but it sounds to me, sir, that we should be able to process your claim fairly quickly.
WALTER: Okay. Thank you. Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Good luck, Walter.
WALTER: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator for the BP oil spill victim compensations fund. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I have to ask you about a characterization from Alabama Attorney General, Troy King, who described you as a corporate shill, completely tone-deaf to the concerns of people along the Gulf Coast.
Mr. FEINBERG: Well, I can't respond to every criticism. The criticism - there's plenty of criticism in doing what I'm doing. The attorney general of Alabama has to do what he has to do. Frankly, the attorney general, in a number of respects, has been quite constructive, so - with some suggestions. So you'd have to ask the attorney general why he feels that way. I'm doing the best I can. I'm totally independent...
CONAN: Aren't you being paid by...
Mr. FEINBERG: ...from both BP and the government.
CONAN: Aren't you being paid by BP?
Mr. FEINBERG: Who else is going to pay the entire program? You can't ask the claimants to pay. You can't ask the government to pay. I'm disclosing, in the next week or two, the entire budget and all of the payments and - so that the public can see it. But on something like this, it's hard for me to see who else will fund this program, other than BP.
CONAN: And is there any way that they oversee how much you're being paid?
Mr. FEINBERG: No. Once a contract is written and a budget is submitted - they haven't questioned anything in terms of the dollars or the cents and stuff, how this program is going to be funded.
CONAN: Let's go next to Mazen(ph), Mazen is with us from Oakland. Is it Mazen or Mazen?
MAZEN (Caller): It's Mazen.
CONAN: Mazen. Go ahead, please.
MAZEN: You know, I heard a couple of weeks ago on NPR, this lady had emotional distress and wanted to put in a claim for money from BP. And I'm just curious how they're - how you're going to take a look at claims for people with emotional distress, considering, in America, we have a lot of fraudulent lawsuits.
Mr. FEINBERG: The fact of the matter is that I'll be glad - as with 9/11, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund is a good precedent. I'll be glad to look at pain and suffering and the mental anguish associated with a physical injury. But if I were to treat, as eligible, claims for purely emotional distress, as you put it, there'd be millions and millions of people that would file claims, watching the fund on television. And I think that it would overwhelm my ability, efficiently, to get money out to those who have immediate direct claims from the oil spill.
So I've had to make decisions. They are tough decisions, but in terms of this fund, I think that any mental pain and suffering must accompany a physical injury.
MAZEN: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call. You've talked about the 9/11 fund that you administered as well, the Virginia Tech... How did those experiences help you in this circumstance?
Mr. FEINBERG: Well, every one of these is different, Neal. I mean, I must say that what you learn when you take on these assignments, is the incredible diversity of human nature. People react to these tragedies, however different they may be, people express in the course of the fund: anger, frustration, disappoint, concern, relief, uncertainty.
You cannot anticipate how individual claimants will react emotionally. But one common denominator in all of these programs, is the very real expression of concern about one's future, about the uncertainty of the future, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a business, the loss of wages, and how people are going to cope with a tragedy that is not their fault - that they bear no responsibility whatsoever, and they're looking, as legitimate victims, for some sort of relief.
CONAN: You will have people - and we've talked to people - who say this is about the loss of a way of life.
Mr. FEINBERG: That's right. I can't compensate for the loss of a way of life. I don't think dollars can do that, or a heritage or a culture. All I can do is evaluated the individual financial and personal loss directly suffered as a result of the spill, and try and provide some small resolution of that loss in the form of compensation.
I can't - I wish I could, but there's no human being that can address the loss of culture, heritage. I've listened to sixth and seventh-generation fishermen lament the fact that their life has forever been altered. I hope that's not true. We'll see. But I'm limited as to I can do.
CONAN: One final technical question, I guess. Are the payments - this is an email from Laurence(ph) in Boulder, Colorado. Are the payments from BP taxable income at either the federal or state level? If so, do you make any attempts to verify the validity of Social Security numbers (unintelligible)?
Mr. FEINBERG: I most certainly do verify the validity of Social Security numbers. I'm very concerned about fraud. That is a major challenge in a fund of this type. The money clearly is taxable. It's a replacement for lost income, lost wages, lost profits. And so it is taxable. I'm not the taxman.
Mr. FEINBERG: I require corroboration and proof of individual claims, but I will bend over backwards to find claimants eligible and pay them generously. However, they will receive a 1099 at the end of the year from the IRS, and there's nothing I can do about that. That's the law of the land.
CONAN: Kenneth Feinberg, Good luck to you.
MR. FEINBERG: I need all the luck I can have, and I thank you, Neal, for having me on the show.
CONAN: Tomorrow, NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us to talk about her series on growing old in your own home. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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