Peltier column: BP assurances ring hollow to many

MICHAEL PELTIER

— Responding to concerns over slow payments and a lack of transparency, BP claims overseer Ken Feinberg returned to Ground Zero last week to reassure Florida lawmakers and affected business owners that the wheels are indeed turning to pay claims on the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Meeting with lawmakers Friday during a meeting of the House Economic Affairs Committee, the dispenser of $20 billion in BP funds set aside to pay claims from the April 20 Deepwater Horizon spill said changes are being made to procedures that have so far frustrated many panhandle business owners who still await checks months after filing claims.

Feinberg says their concerns are valid and being addressed. But the message is ringing increasingly hollow to affected business owners, angered over a lack of payment and review process that so far gives claimants little or no justification for claims decisions. Frankly, they just don’t believe the man.

Feinberg, appointed by President Barack Obama to make payments to thousands of individuals and businesses affected by the spill, has been the target of increasing criticism by hotel owners, commercial fishers and other tourism-reliant businesses.

“The perception is that the current process is broken,” said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Fort Myers. “And to the people who have not been paid at all or who have been denied without explanation, many of whom are in the audience today, it is not a perception. It is a reality.”

While admitting that problems exist, Feinberg said the reimbursement process is working but has been slowed by the sheer volume of claims, now exceeding 500,000, which have flooded into claims offices throughout the gulf. To date, Feinberg said the Gulf Coast Claims Facility has paid more than $3.5 billion in claims, including $1.3 billion in Florida.

“We’re doing something right,” Feinberg said. “I believe that there is no comparison between the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and BP, which came before.”

The biggest problem, Feinberg contended, remains. Many of the claims have been “woefully lacking” in corroborating information. More than 50,000 claims for interim and final payments, for example, have come in with no documentation at all.

“I’m not trying to hold back money,” Feinberg said. “I just want to make sure the claimant has the information needed to justify the claim.”

Feinberg’s biggest obstacle to overcome is the nature of the panhandle business environment, in which a significant portion of economic activity is done in cash and with a handshake. Commercial fishers, tourist businesses, and many along the coast have little or no documentation beyond tax returns to justify their incomes.

Some are inevitably trying to scam the system, but anecdotal information points to the fact that many, if not most of the claims are valid and need to be paid. The panhandle tourist season kicks up in a few months. Many in the region are trying to hold on until then. With more than $15 billion left to spend, Feinberg, in many cases, will be the determining factor in whether they can.

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