Feinberg’s intonations evoke the Massachusetts of his youth, so when he says a word such as half, it comes out as “hoff.” He learned the ways of Washington as a staffer in the 1970s for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, sharing a cramped space with fellow future legal stars David Boies, of Bush v. Gore fame, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Feinberg and Breyer remain particularly close, at times talking on a daily basis. They, along with Georgetown law professor and former Federal Trade Commission chairman Robert Pitofsky, make up what is surely one of the legal world’s most high-powered regular lunch bunches.
Kennedy was a friend for life, too, and Feinberg visited the legendary senator at his Massachusetts retreat in the months before his death. “You might go off the payroll, but you were always a Kennedy employee,” Feinberg says.
(Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - In his new book, Kenneth Feinberg details the decade he has spent as the person who decides how to compensate the victims of events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the BP oil spill.
An unusual specialty
Feinberg laid the groundwork for his unusual specialty practice under the mentorship of Jack B. Weinstein, a New York federal judge who appointed him as a special master in 1984 to dole out the $180 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by veterans exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange. Weinstein arrived at the novel idea of holding hearings across the country to decide who would get paid. Feinberg accompanied him and writes that he marveled at the veterans who “pleaded for money — not for themselves, but for their brothers in arms.”
Feinberg’s Agent Orange experience made him a logical choice to oversee the Sept. 11 compensation fund, a task that made him a household name as he handed out more than $7 billion to victims and their families from a fund established by Congress and the George W. Bush administration. He was generally lauded as a modern-day Solomon. Yet giving away money is a strange business, and he sometimes had strange encounters. He flew to London to meet with foreign families, he says, and “they were absolutely convinced I was working for the CIA.”
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Feinberg says he was intent on building a mega-law firm. But afterward, his perspective changed. Things that mattered before didn’t seem to matter as much anymore. “I am much more fatalistic,” Feinberg says. “I don’t think I plan more than two weeks ahead. You never know what’s going to happen.”
The Sept. 11 fund, as well as his later work for the Virginia Tech memorial fund and as the “pay czar” overseeing compensation for executives of bailed-out financial companies, came with unambiguous optics. He was doing “patriotic” or empathetic work without pay, Feinberg says. But the BP spill was a different matter. As famous as Feinberg had become, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg actually asked for his references. Feinberg offered up a former attorney general, John D. Ashcroft; a university president, Virginia Tech’s Charles Steger; and a top U.S. Treasury official, Neal Wolin.
Sufficiently impressed, BP brought him in to administer a fund that the company created. Feinberg, not a mincer of words, flatly describes BP as “a corporate wrongdoer.” This time, he was getting paid: His firm took in a flat fee of $850,000 a month for the first three months, then bumped it up to $1.25 million a month from September 2010 through June 2012.