Over the years, Pitofsky says in an interview, his friend has developed “a thick skin . . . knowing he’s going to take criticism.
“You can’t do [work like Feinberg’s] without some people being brutally unsatisfied,” says Pitofsky, who taught Feinberg at New York University’s law school.
‘A human piñata’
Down on the gulf, Feinberg writes, he became “a human piñata,” yelled at during town-hall-style meetings by business owners who didn’t think he was paying them enough or didn’t think he was paying them fast enough.
“The idea of a white, Yankee, Jewish Bostonian riding in and riding out with the blessing of the administration, funded by BP — there’s a presumption before you even start that you’re treading water,” Feinberg says over coffee one morning.
Rep. Jo Bonner, an Alabama Republican, called the compensation program “a monster.” Bob Riley, then Alabama’s Republican governor, accused Feinberg of unfairly manipulating the claims process. Louisiana’s Republican senator, David Vitter, accused Feinberg of making “empty promises” and delivering “hollow rhetoric.”
Yet others, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Obama, who recently invited Feinberg to the White House for a private Oval Office attaboy, have praised his speed and efficiency. Feinberg managed to dole out $6.2 billion in 18 months while sorting through more than 1 million claims and fending off the barbs of impatient politicians and gulf residents. The claims process has been turned over to the courts as part of a settlement with plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Feinberg writes in the book that he made some mistakes, especially “over-promising” what he could accomplish and underestimating the depth of the problems in the messy claims process he inherited from BP. But he pushes back at the criticism by describing the absurdities of what was unfolding and the monumental size of the task, particularly the logistical headache of managing more than 1 million claims.
He says claims were filed in all 50 states. One man filed a claim for the entire $20 billion fund. There were dentists and chiropractors who thought they should be paid right along with the shrimp-boat and beach resort owners. There was even a man who filed a claim in Oslo, then submitted an additional claim asking for compensation because he injured himself in a fall while going to the post office to mail his first claim.
Feinberg defends his work, but it’s interesting to listen to him talk about the philosophy of compensation. He says the programs that he has administered are successes but that they shouldn’t be repeated, or at least not repeated often, because they could set unrealistic precedents. If asked beforehand whether they were good ideas, he says, he would probably have said, “No.”
“These programs are aberrations,” he says. “Bad things happen to people every day in this country. It’s very difficult for me to understand why these people [get paid], not those people. . . . The people who died in [the bombing of the federal building] in Oklahoma City didn’t get paid.”
Through it all, through all the interviews with sobbing victims and the impassioned pleas, Feinberg says he’s never cried in front of the people who were asking him for help. Solomon, you see, decides — he doesn’t blubber. But there was that one night in New York after a wrenching day of talks with relatives of the Sept. 11 victims when he returned to his hotel room and closed the door. There, alone, he shed tears.
It wasn’t quite the padded room in Bethesda. But, on that night, it would have to do.