Feinberg Still Not Satisfying Fla. Businesses

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 18, 2011 --

Business owners affected by the BP spill continued to vent to lawmakers on Friday about not having been paid quickly enough and getting little feedback on why some claims are denied.

BP claims overseer Ken Feinberg answered a call to appear before the House Economic Affairs Committee, and while acknowledging some problems exist he said the reimbursement process is working. It has been slowed by the sheer volume of claims, now exceeding 500,000, which have flooded into claims offices throughout the Gulf region, he said. 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.” Before the federal office was set up to handle the money that BP paid to reimburse those who lost business because of the spill, the oil giant itself handled the claims.

Feinberg told lawmakers that formal rules would be released later in the day to address many concerns about a lack of transparency in the process but some business owners who also came before the committee said they don’t believe Feinberg because they’ve heard similar assurances before and are still waiting to get paid.

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 affected by the April 20 explosion and subsequent spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

“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.”

The biggest problem, Feinberg contended, remains that 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.”

To speed up the process, Feinberg said he would be dispatching more accountants to the local claims centers. The new rules will also spell out in more detail the information needed to process claims.

Feinberg met Thursday with Gov. Rick Scott and Friday morning with Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Feinberg also met Thursday evening with Rep. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, who said Feinberg told him to “back off” his criticism of the GCCF, a request Broxson said he could not fulfill.

“I told him I’ll continue to represent my constituents,” Broxson said Friday.

Friday’s meeting was attended by dozens of hotel owners who said the claims process has been completely unresponsive to the losses incurred at their hotels, many of which are now in foreclosure.

“The spill has cost our industry hundreds of millions of dollars.” said Nash Patel, a hotel owner from Pensacola. “We are still waiting.”

Angered over Feinberg’s comments Friday, Patel and some others walked out of the meeting.

Speaking to reporters, Art Rocker, a representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the civil rights group, with Fienberg’s blessing, enlisted the help of 400 pastors along the Gulf coast and collected claims from 15,000 residents whose losses have yet to be paid.

“These are real people we’re talking about here,” Rocker said. “They’re poor people. They’re the ones who clean the rooms and who fish in the Gulf to feed their families and make a little extra.”

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