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Kenneth Feinberg, Weathering the Storm in the Gulf

Attorney is in the midst of another mission impossible as administrator of BP's compensation fund

Some people look forward to retirement, the ability to relax and take life at a more leisurely pace. Not Kenneth Feinberg.

Although he will turn 65 on Oct. 23, Feinberg continues to be a man who seeks out the tough assignments — the high-profile challenges that come with long hours, tension, close public scrutiny and often intense criticism.

In August, Feinberg became the independent pay czar for BP's $20 billion Gulf oil spill compensation fund, meaning he's the man in charge of distributing huge sums of money to thousands of victims of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

A highly successful Washington attorney, Feinberg, along with his team, will decide which fishermen, local businesses and Gulf Coast residents get compensated, and by how much — decisions that can bring solace to some whose lives have been upended by the oil spill, and frustration and anger to others whose expectations are not met.

"This is a very trying time," Feinberg says. "We're in the middle of emergency payments. This is stressful for everyone. We're getting through it. We're accelerating claims."

As of Oct. 4, $963,734,715 has been distributed from the fund for 49,102 claims.

Master of disasters

The Gulf oil spill case is just Feinberg's most recent foray into an emotion-laden and difficult situation.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Feinberg was in charge of the government's $7 billion compensation fund for the survivors and families of the victims, and personally participated in most of the 1,500 adjudication hearings. He headed the compensation payment fund for the victims of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University, was appointed by President Obama as point man on pay guidelines for top Wall Street executives who took federal bailout money, and was instrumental in obtaining a $180 million legal settlement for veterans who had sued the manufacturers of Agent Orange.

Feinberg exudes confidence, his New England accent coming through in short assertive bursts. He makes it clear he has a job to do, standards to follow and people to help, and is well aware he cannot please everyone. He feels the pain of the Gulf residents, but says experience has taught him to be both firm and calm in the midst of the storm.

He is facing a ton of problems, including the receipt of thousands of claims that are not documented. "I am not Santa Claus," he says. "I cannot pay out claims regardless of proof."

Claims watcher

What he can do is work to make sure people file the proper documents and that the 2,000 workers handling the claims around the clock — 1,500 in the Gulf and 500 in Washington — are given the help they need. He's been to the Gulf dozens of times and has met with victims and local residents to explain how they can get their money.

"The Gulf is different than other cases. We're dealing with fishermen worried about their future. We want to hear what they have to say to try to understand their concerns," Feinberg says.

Despite his best efforts, there has been criticism from local public officials and residents, many of whom feel Feinberg has not moved fast enough. Feinberg says this comes with the territory.

"I think you always hear loudest from those who are angry, frustrated, and from the skeptics. But we get letters every day from claimants in the Gulf, victims who express thanks and appreciation," he says. For the most part, Feinberg adds, "people are quite civil there."

No rest for the weary

Feinberg's wife of 35 years, Dede, says her husband cares deeply about the plight of the Gulf residents, and is either at work or has a phone in his hand conducting business. She says he rarely takes time off.

"He's very intent on making a difference and doing it right," she says.

The couple has three grown children and two grandchildren, but Feinberg lately has had little time for his family or for his hobbies. He loves listening to classical music, and is president of the Washington National Opera.

Feinberg was born in the working-class Boston suburb of Brockton. His father was a tire salesman, and his mother was a bookkeeper at a community center. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts and New York University School of Law, clerked for a New York state appeals court judge, served as an assistant U.S. attorney, became chief of staff for Sen. Ted Kennedy, and went on to build a lucrative private law practice.

Bruce Eisen, a friend for 25 years, describes Feinberg as only "superficially a Type A personality," a man who may appear driven and single-minded, but who really has a compassionate heart. "There's a certain warmth and softness about Ken when he has concerns and considerations about people," says Eisen. But he admits that his buddy "doesn't do anything without stepping back first and focusing on the issue and problem and the best way to solve it."

That appears to be what Feinberg is trying to do in the Gulf. "The test of the success of this program, like the others, is how effective are you at getting the money out to the people," he says.

Judi Hasson is a writer in McLean, Va.

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