Overseer of Victim Compensation Funds Says Work is Wrenching

By JAY LINDSAY | April 29, 2013

Massachusetts lawyer Kenneth Feinberg has been near the heart of some of the worst catastrophes, dealing with people who’ve faced profound loss after 9/11, the BP oil spill, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the Colorado movie theater ambush.

Now, he’s adding the Boston Marathon bombings to his workload, managing a victims’ compensation fund as he did after the previous tragedies.

The 67-year-old Feinberg said his work takes an emotional toll but is about wanting to help, in the same spirit as those who donate.

The experiences are wrenching, he said. And recipients invariably resent him, thinking he’s trying to put a price on the priceless things they’ve lost.

“Don’t expect thanks or appreciation or gratitude, none of that,” Feinberg said. “We have very emotional victims and you’re offering them money instead of a limb, instead of the return of a family member. This is a no-win situation.”

But he keeps saying yes to the work because he wants to help.

“Look at the amount of money that pours in from private people, private citizens?” he said. “How do you say no if the governor calls, the mayor?”

In 1984, the Brockton native was appointed to distribute money from a $180 million settlement for military veterans exposed to Agent Orange. His work was stellar enough to prompt a call when President George W. Bush was looking for someone to manage the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. Since then, the calls have come regularly.

Currently, he is advising a panel distributing money after the December school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and mediating settlement discussions between Penn State and alleged sex abuse victims of former football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The One Fund – now nearing $26 million – was established to help victims of the April 15 marathon explosions that killed three people and injured more than 260. Feinberg has established an aggressive timeline in Boston. He hopes to meet with families by June 15 and get checks out by June 30.

Most of the work is pro bono, including the Boston Marathon job, though Feinberg was paid for his work with the 9/11 fund and the BP oil spill, the job that earned Feinberg the most abuse.

In his 2012 book, “Who Gets What,” he said he became a ‘human pinata.” Residents complained about the speed and distribution of the payouts, and insults flew at public meetings. “You are such a lying piece of (garbage),” one person said.

Meanwhile, lawyers scoffed at his vigorous declarations of independence from BP, a claim Feinberg said now widely believed.

Attorney Anthony Tarricone, now of the Boston firm Kreindler & Kreindler, who represented both BP and 9/11 victims, called Feinberg the perfect person to manage the marathon fund. Tarricone cited Feinberg’s legal skills and the respectful, kind manner in which he dealt with 9/11 families.

“He was fair, he listened to the families, the families felt as if they were being listened to, and that he was understanding what they were going through,” Tarricone said.

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who worked with Feinberg when he was handling the 9/11 fund, said Feinberg balances compassion for the victims with vigilance in protecting the money from abuse.

“I can’t say exactly how he handles it emotionally and psychologically, I just know that he does it professionally,” Ashcroft said. “I don’t think the world would keep going back, knocking on his door, saying ‘Ken, we need you again,’ if they were displeased because there’s nothing that locks him into this responsibility.”

The eventual total of the One Fund will determine who can be helped. Payment for deaths takes priority, followed by compensation for physical injuries. Payment for mental health issues comes if money is available, Feinberg said.

His principle is to pay the same amount on all deaths. His top indicator for determining the seriousness of the injuries is the length of the hospital stay.

Feinberg has established an aggressive timeline. He hopes to meet with families by June 15 and get checks out by June 30. Along the way, the classical music aficionado will most likely take refuge in music when he can.

“During the day, I’m working on a project that shows you how uncivilized some people can be and how they willy-nilly, at random, kill and maim people,” he said. “And at night you turn on Mozart, and it’s the height of civilization.” It reminds him “that mankind isn’t all bad.”

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