Oil Spill Panel Ducks Out Early, Under Fire

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A panel that included a U.S. senator and Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of BP's $20 billion claims fund, prematurely ended its question and answer session at the Hilton Riverside Hotel when questions were increasingly outweighed by dark comments, including one from a man who called Feinberg a liar.
     Most comments were directed at Feinberg, though Senator Mary Landrieu danced around a question directed at her about oil-drilling regulations, saying she was "not here to stomp all over the industries that are here."
     No one from BP or the State of Louisiana was present at the Thursday meeting.
     Speaking to Feinberg as an agent of BP, the last member of the public to take the mike said Feinberg's entire process has been an exercise in limiting the liability of an oil giant.
     "Congratulations, the national media thinks there's no problem," the man said, adding that the burden of the oil spill should not fall on the sick and destitute.
     Feinberg, who makes $1.25 million a month as the administrator of BP's oil spill fund, did not reply. But twice during the meeting he indicated that he thinks public money - not BP's money - should be used to pay for people who are sick or out of work because of the oil spill.
     "We enlisted Catholic Charities to figure out what to do and what to do about subsistence claims," Feinberg said.
     He did not say, however, that both BP and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), which he oversees, recently refused to help Catholic Charities with any money to ease the nonprofit's operating deficit.
     Immediately after the oil spill one year ago, BP gave Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans $1.25 million. Catholic Charities spent $700,000 of it right away on food vouchers for the people who had lost their jobs to the oil spill. It spent the rest quickly on bringing resources to hard-hit communities.
     The charity's bank account has been slammed by the oil spill; it estimates it can continue operating only until June unless more money comes in.
     From his personal email account, Feinberg denied Catholic Charities' request on April 6.
     "Under the GCCF protocols for payment of claims and under the Oil Pollution Act, these losses would not be considered losses of profits and would not be compensable by the GCCF," Feinberg wrote.
     Catholic Charities asked Feinberg for the money after BP's human resources manager in New Orleans, Iris Cross, told the charity it had to go through the GCCF.
     Still, during the meeting Thursday, Feinberg recognized the need for nonprofits to address the human disaster left by the spill.
     "Nonprofits don't get the press, they don't get the thanks," Feinberg said. "I don't think this country could be what it is without the nonprofits."
     Later, in response to pleas for medical help from a man who says he is seriously ill from exposure to oil and dispersants, Feinberg was tentative about whether his medical claim would be paid through the GCCF.
     "Do you have workers' compensation or Social Security?" Feinberg asked.
     Sitting on the panel with Feinberg was David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM and a member of the Gulf Relief Foundation executive committee. Freedman cited Feinberg's past successes in handling Agent Orange claims and as special master for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund.
     "You are highly regarded in New York for the work you have done," Freedman told Feinberg. But in the Gulf, "Frankly, people think that you're disingenuous, dishonest, that you're an agent of BP."
     Freedman said he had a problem with Feinberg's comment that "we're all in this together," because "BP hasn't been a good player."
     Freedman pointed out that on the first anniversary of the beginning of the disaster, BP hadn't even made a public statement.
     "You're what's left," Freedman told Feinberg.
     Feinberg conceded he's faced criticism that he put money in the wrong place. One example is the large sums that Gulf Coast seafood marketing campaigns have received, while desperate fishermen have had to throw themselves at the feet of Catholic Charities.
     Another example is the millions of dollars pumped into mental health services, while social services operate on a deficit.
     The GCCF has been criticized for denying thousands of claims for supposed lack of documentation.
     "The problem arises," Feinberg said, "when a claimant comes and asks for the whole $20 billion, or a whole $10 billion, or even $100,000, but they don't have the paperwork to substantiate the claim."
     After the meeting, an attorney said that Feinberg is "making a unilateral decision based on unchecked discretion on what the award should be," and that judicial oversight is needed.
     In February, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the consolidated oil spill litigation in New Orleans, ruled that judicial oversight is not necessary.
     Since then, at least two state district attorneys have renewed their demand for judicial oversight, saying Feinberg is acting exclusively for the benefit of BP.
     Feinberg has paid 178,000 claimants a total of $3.9 billion since taking over the claims process from BP in August 2010 - an average of $21,910 per claim.
     Most money went to emergency advances last year.
     Eighty-four percent of the final payments so far have been "quick payments" of a flat $25,000 for businesses or $5,000 for individuals. Such recipients must sign a waiver agreeing to forego any more claims.
     The tough questions asked during the question and answer session weren't all directed at Feinberg.
     Kindra Arnesen of Venice, La., 33, the wife of an offshore oil worker and mother of two, asked Sen. Landrieu why offshore drilling is continuing, though blowout preventers are just 65 percent effective.
     Landrieu sidestepped the question, saying many families in Louisiana have both oil workers and fishermen.
     Landrieu said BP needs to pay every claim, and that all the drilling technology used in Brazil, in Africa and in the Middle East comes from "our back yard."
     Landrieu said more oil is dumped into the ocean from tanker accidents, such as the Exxon Valdez, than from well blowouts, and that tanker accidents are the unfortunate byproduct of drilling too far away and of having to transport oil.
     The Deepwater Horizon accident was "horrific" Landrieu said, but not normal.
     "The wives of the men who died in the [Deepwater Horizon explosion], sitting at my kitchen table, said: 'Mary, if our husbands were alive, they would be right out there drilling oil,'" the senator said.
     Landrieu continued: "We're here to make it safe. But we're not here to stomp all over the industries that are here."
     Clayton Matherne, who is seriously ill after working in the oil spill cleanup, confronted Feinberg about the denial of his medical claims during a December meeting, and showed up Thursday to question Feinberg again.
     "I had a message from Ann Landers calling me a liar and saying there are no health problems along the Gulf Coast," Matherne told Feinberg.
     Landrieu told Matherne she wants to work with him, and put testimonies about his illness from doctors and nurses on the record.
     "Believe me," Landrieu said, "the country doesn't have the kind of research to help you as much as we should."
     She added: "I will do everything I can to help you."
     Matherne had more questions for Feinberg.
     "Mr. Feinberg, in Raceland [La.], when you were asked if you were employed by BP, you stood there and said, 'No.'
     "Where do the lies stop?"
     Matherne continued: "The GCCF says they don't have enough medical documentation to pay a $100,000 claim, when in fact this amount is only half. I've faxed my medical records six times. Where are medical claims going?"
     Feinberg responded that the GCCF will honor all medical claims. He said the GCCF looks at other factors, such as, "Was there evidence the medical condition is on account of oil?" and, "What is the documentation of claimant? Do you have worker's compensation or Social Security?"
     John Gooding, of Pass Christian, Miss., whose oil-spill related symptoms include muscular tremors, lung ailments and tumors in his esophagus, told Feinberg the GCCF denied his claim, telling him his Social Security number didn't match his name.
     Gooding said he is worried it will take years for his claim to be recognized and paid.
     "I don't have ... years," Gooding said. "My family depends on me to make a living now."
     During Gooding's questions, plaintiffs' attorney Daniel Becnel Jr., sitting on the panel, blurted out that he himself has leukemia.
     "I'm not his patsy," Becnel said of Feinberg. "I represent people just like you."
     Earlier, Becnel had said most attorneys ask for 30 percent when they take on clients, but he asks for only 10 percent.
     The meeting ended 40 minutes ahead of schedule, with a line of people waiting to speak.
     The panel was part of the Gulf Coast Leadership Summit, hosted by the Gulf Coast Leadership Forum, an offshoot of the United States Leadership Forum, "an independent organization working to identify solutions to our most critical problems," according to its website.
     Members of the panel included Senator Landrieu, Kenneth Feinberg, Daniel Becnel Jr., Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm; David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM; and Parker Sternbergh of the Gulf Relief Foundation and the Tulane School of Social Work.