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Two years after Deepwater Horizon disaster, Justice Department audit nets extra $64 million in payments for oil blast victims

Thursday, April 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

An independent audit of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility resulted in an extra $64 million for more than 7,400 victims whose claims had originally been denied by former administrator Ken Feinberg.

More than half of the money will be going to Floridians whose claims were erroneously rejected, according to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. As a result of the audit, the Justice Department approved $37.7 million for 4,450 Florida individuals and businesses whom Feinberg turned down.

The U.S. Justice Department released the preliminary audit findings Thursday, one day before the second anniversary of the massive explosion that killed 11 oil rig workers and spewed an estimated 206 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It took more than 85 days for engineers to finally stanch the oil flow from BP’s Macondo well that devastated coastal wetlands, stained Florida Panhandle beaches, killed wildlife and shut down commercial fishing in the Gulf for extended periods of time.

The initial findings of the audit were released The audit, released by the U.S. Justice Department today, found that overall Feinberg did a fine job distributing more than $6.2 billion – less than half of the $20 billion BP set aside to pay for damages caused by the spill – to more than 220,000 claimants over 18 months.

“While our independent evaluation did uncover instances in which errors were made in the claims evaluation process, in general, the GCCF appeared to have consistently applied its protocols and methodologies in processing claims,” BDO Consulting auditors wrote.

The audit found that Feinberg’s GCCF denied about 60 percent of the claims. Initially, claims were denied because the types of businesses trying to get paid were not eligible for payment or because claimants failed to provide required financial documents. During the second part of the claims process, the majority of claims turned down were rejected because they could not document that their financial losses were caused by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil blast.

Feinberg made changes to the claims process in response to problems identified by his workers, likely adding to some of the inconsistencies in payments, the auditors found.

But they praised him, given the “complexity and unprecedented nature” of Feinberg’s task.

“The GCCF was designed to respond, and did respond, with urgency to the economic difficulties of those most likely affected by the Spill. However, because of the complexity and unprecedented nature of the task undertaken by the GCCF, it was inevitable that some claimants and stakeholders would have concerns about its operations. While hundreds of thousands of individual and business claimants received payment without litigation over the two years immediately following the Spill, many others have sought an alternative to the GCCF. We hope
that all those who have been genuinely affected by the Spill, ultimately receive an appropriate resolution to their claims,” the auditors wrote.

Claimants encountered a variety of problems, including being denied even though the companies they worked for had been approved. Others complained that about inconsistency. In some instance, employees who worked the same shift at the same restaurant received different treatment.

Bondi, one of the Gulf Coast state attorneys general who pushed for the audit last year, specifically wanted the audit to include an investigation into the discrepancies.

“I had always wanted an audit in order to bring transparency to the claims process, and thankfully Floridians will now receive the millions in relief that they deserve,” Bondi said in a statement.

Analysts puzzle over jobless claims from BP spill

Thursday, July 14th, 2011 by John Kennedy

When the Florida Panhandle was staggered by the effects of last summer’s BP oil spill, hotels, restaurants and other employers along the coast laid-off workers and braced for economic calamity.

But state analysts looking to put a price on how much financial damage Florida absorbed remained puzzled Thursday by a recurring number. The state’s employment office, the Agency for Workforce Innovation, reports that only 735 unemployment claims have been directly linked to the oil spill.

Tom Clendenning, AWI’s chief-of-staff, told the state’s revenue estimating conference that 7,778 workers also were let go last year by the same employers who laid-off the 778. A survey is now being conducted to learn whether the 778 lost jobs should be increased — with the bill going to BP. 

Clendenning said that $2.3 million in unemployment benefits have been paid out related to the oil spill. Estimators are trying to determine how much in taxes and fees Florida taxpayers lost last year, in addition to benefit payouts.

One item estimators took off the table Thursday was lost revenue in traffic tickets, due to lost traffic. Estimators seemed to think that was too tough to quantify.

BP last week asked the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which oversees claims, to reduce damage payments because the British oil giant said the region’s tourist economy has recovered and fisheries are back to work.

Florida U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Republican Marco Rubio are among officials disputing BP’s stance, saying there is too much uncertainty to claim the spill poses no future financial risk for coastal communities.

BP said it has paid Florida cities and counties about $10.6 million for revenue losses, in addition to millions more for cleanup, expenses and tourist promotion.

Scott review of BP claims czar mixed

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Eight months after BP claims czar Ken Feinberg took over the $20 billion victim claim fund, reviews are mixed as to how the brash Boston lawyer is handling the process.

Gov. Rick Scott, in Destin to pitch tourism in the region hammered by last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig blast that sparked the nation’s worst oil spill in history, said he met with Feinberg last week while in Washington.

“The positive is he’s opened up more claims offices here and more feet on the ground and more people here talking to them. The negative is there’s a lot of people that still haven’t been paid,” Scott said standing outside the Lucky Snapper restaurant in Destin.

Feinberg, who’s paid out $3.8 billion to businesses and individuals in the Gulf States since taking over the Gulf Coast Claims Facility in August. That includes $1.5 billion to Florida victims.

Feinberg’s processed about 70 percent of the more than 500,000 claims filed. But many of those claims have yet to be paid.

Scott said he and Attorney General Pam Bondi set March 31 goals for Feinberg’s processing of Florida claims.

But nearly a month later, Scott couldn’t say whether Feinberg met his benchmarks.

“He’s given us how he thinks he’s doing,” Scott said .

Scott said he and Bondi’s staff are reviewing Feinberg’s results “to see what improvements he needs to make to make sure that we get everyone paid.”

Scott said he believes Feinberg is open to suggestions.

“He doesn’t want pressure from either attorney general or me. So what we’ve got to do is keep telling him what our needs are and just make sure he does the right thing,” Scott said.

The governor refrained from giving Feinberg a grade yet but promised “I’ll be telling him exactly how I think he’s doing.”

State’s culinary ambassador wows ‘em in Panhandle

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 by Dara Kam

After 200 million gallons of oil and 1.5 million gallons of dispersants flooded into the Gulf of Mexico last year, tourism and agriculture officials are struggling to get the word out that Florida’s coast is as beautiful – and safe – as ever.

Enter Justin Timineri, the state chef and “culinary ambassador,” who showed off his craft at Bayou Joe’s after the panel returned from their angling adventures.

Timineri, who works for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam as the state’s certified executive chef, is a former governor’s mansion chef who in 2006 beat out Bobbie Flay in a Food Channel competition.

Timineri’s winning recipe would make any diner salivate. He nailed the best domestic seafood dish in the country for his crispy pan-seared Florida snapper over a citrus and shaved fennel salad with a passion fruit and coconut milk sauce garnished with green mango jam and Florida Gulf shrimp.

The Cabinet’s fare was a tad less refined last night – they supped on fried fish – until dessert time.

Timineri concocted a trio of Sunshine State-style sweets: Chocolate mousse with an orange cookie, a martini glass with Florida berries and a vanilla and orange-scented custard, and Florida melon salsa-scented with lemon and lavender.

It’s enough to make even a Cabinet member salivate.

Scott, Cabinet in Panhandle get their game (fish) on

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott with his new fishing license in Panama City

Gov. Rick Scott, in the Panhandle as the state’s cheerleader-in-chief, and the Florida Cabinet threw down the gauntlet – at each other – in advance of a “friendly” fishing tournament this afternoon.

In Panama City on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blast that sent 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam held their first out-of-town Cabinet meeting at the Bay County Government Center in Panama City.

Some good news for Florida anglers other than the Cabinet – Putnam’s staff announced the state would hold two free fishing weekends at the open of the red snapper season on June 4 and again for Father’s Day on June 19. And they’ve extended the scallop season for three extra weeks. The season will begin a week before its previously scheduled July 1 kick off and last two weeks longer than the slated Sept. 10 close.

The Cabinet fishing competition began almost as soon as the panel – all clad in Columbia fishing shirts embroidered with the new “Gulf Safe” seafood marketing logo – reached the podium.

“It’s great to be here,” said Scott, who purchased his $17.50 fishing license at C and G Sporting Goods in downtown Panama City earlier in the day. “We’re going to have a fishing tournament. And we all know that I’m going to win.”

Bondi stepped up to Scott’s challenge.

(more…)

Cabinet fishing tournament tomorrow in Panama City

Monday, April 18th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet will be angling for some positive PR in the Panhandle tomorrow – literally.

Scott has set up a fishing tournament in Panama City after the Cabinet’s meeting there ends tomorrow afternoon, according to his spokeswoman Amy Graham.

Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater will go out on the water in charter fishing boats late tomorrow afternoon and have a weigh-in back at the docks to see who’s the best with a rod and reel.

They’ll be competing for a $5,000 grand prize sponsored by the Northwest Florida Tourism Council, one of the seven counties that just received $20 million from BP to market the region. The money will go to the winner’s choice of a charity related to the oil spill, Graham said.

Bondi, Scott mulling oil rig lawsuit as deadline nears

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi are still undecided about whether to join a federal lawsuit against the owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig as next week’s April 20 deadline to file approaches.

“What we’re doing is we’re looking at our options. We’ll make the right decision. We’re exploring our options. We’re looking at it,” Scott said this morning.

“Right now we’re reviewing all of our options,” Bondi echoed.

Alabama has already joined the lawsuit, as have some Florida school districts and other local governments, along with businesses and individuals impacted by last year’s massive oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lawyers involved in the case say the state has nothing to lose by joining in except the possibility of big bucks from Transocean, the rig owner, and other companies involved in the disaster, including BP.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in Louisiana is overseeing the case to determine how much fault BP, Halliburton and the other companies involved in the oil disaster are liable for. A trial is set for late February.

BP pledges $30M in marketing money for Panhandle, state seeks more for lost tax revenue

Monday, April 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

BP officials agreed to give $30 million over six months to seven counties in the Florida Panhandle hardest hit by last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Gov. Rick Scott announced the agreement with the oil giant this morning, calling it a “very small step on the road to recovery.”

Flanked by BP officials and Northwest Florida lawmakers and tourism officials at a press conference this morning, Scott praised BP for the money aimed at giving the region a boost after a dismal tourist season last year as Panhandle beaches and waters were despoiled by oil.

“This is a great day for Florida. I’m very comfortable that my discussion so far with BP is that they’re going to continue to do the right thing,” said Scott, who did away with the oil spill task force created by Gov. Charlie Crist.

The latest funds – which will be distributed over six months in $10 million increments starting in about two weeks – brings to $62 million the company has given to Florida for tourism marketing. BP also gave another $20 million for testing and marketing the state’s seafood industry.

“We recognize how important tourism is to the economy of Florida and especially North Florida,” said BP senior VP Luke Keller. “We’ve worked very hard with local officials there to make sure the beaches are being cleaned up…I can report the beaches are cleaned up and ready for the tourist season.”

Clean-up efforts continue in the Pensacola area, still impacted by tar mats and tar balls.

Scott’s staff said the state will seek money from BP to cover lost tax revenue resulting from the April 20 disaster that unleashed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico just at the onset of the Panhandle’s tourist season. Details about how much money the state wants were not available.

The state has until April 20 to file a federal lawsuit against BP. Louisiana officials have already filed their claim, and Florida U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, sent Scott a letter today urging him to follow suit.

Read BP exec’s Facebook Q and A

Friday, March 18th, 2011 by Dara Kam

BP exec Dave Rainey, head of the oil giant’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, held his third Facebook chat yesterday.

Rainey’s fielded questions ranging from whether the dispersants used after the April 20th Deepwater Horizon blow-out caused acid rain (he says no), what’s up with tar mats still found on beaches, including Pensacola, and oil on the Gulf of Mexico ocean floor.

The first question dealt with dozens of dead infant dolphins who washed ashore along the Gulf Coast – a six-fold increase from previous years.

“Why are the dolphins dead?” Down Hiller, who asked the first question, wanted to know.

Read Rainey’s response after the jump and the entire transcript here. (more…)

Scott, Bondi persuade BP claims czar to improve Florida cases

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

BP claims czar Ken Feinberg has agreed to improve Florida’s claims processing at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, Scott announced today.

The changes come after tens of thousands of Panhandle Floridians’ claims have languished for months while trying to seek compensation for the April 20th Deepwater Horizon blow-out.

Bondi and Scott met with Feinberg separately while the lawyer, whose firm earns $850,000 a month to manage the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, was in the Capitol to appear before a House committee.

Read the promised improvements after the jump.

(more…)

House Speaker orders investigation into oil spill claims system

Thursday, January 13th, 2011 by Dara Kam

House Speaker Dean Cannon is asking his economic development committee to investigate reports of problems with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility payments to BP oil spill victims.

BP claims czar Ken Feinberg has paid out almost $1.2 billion to nearly 70,000 claimants.

But more than twice that many claims – about 157,000 – remain in the system.

“Recently, numerous breakdowns and inconsistencies within the claims process have been brought to my attention,” Cannon, R-Orlando, wrote to House Economic Affairs Committee Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill.

Sink to host BP claims workshop in Panama City

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink’s office is holding a workshop in Panama City tomorrow for Floridians wanting help getting their BP claims paid.

Sink’s staff will be at the Marina Civic Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will meet with individuals and business owners trying to get speedier payments – or any at all – from BP claims czar Ken Feinberg, in charge of doling out the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility fund.

Sink, the Democrat candidate for governor, has been critical of Feinberg’s claims process and took credit yesterday after the Boston lawyer decided to expand eligibility for claims payments to businesses located far away from where oil washed up on the beach.

She’s also launched a website where Floridians can share their horror tales about navigating the claims process.

Former DEP chief Mike Sole heads to FPL

Monday, October 4th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole has gone to work for Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light.

The marine biologist is the vice president of the power company’s government affairs department, according to an internal FPL memo.

Sole, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist shortly after he took office four years ago, stepped down as DEP chief this summer in the midst of overseeing the state’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

BP claims czar backs off proximity to oil spill in paying claims

Monday, October 4th, 2010 by Dara Kam

How close a business is to where oil actually washed up on the beach won’t be a factor in determining whether it is eligible to be paid for lost revenues, BP claims czar Ken Feinberg has decided.

Feinberg revamped the claims process after being pressured by a bipartisan coalition of Florida officials, including Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

Today, Kenneth Feinberg, Administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, announced that geographic proximity to the BP oil spill would not prevent a legitimate individual or business claim from being processed.

“I have heard from elected officials in Florida, including Governor Crist, Attorney General McCollum, CFO Sink and others, about their concerns regarding Floridians’ proximity to the spill and how, regardless of distance, there has been economic impact beyond the areas closest to the spill. After listening to these concerns, I have concluded that a geographic test to determine eligibility regarding economic harm due to the oil spill is unwarranted,” Feinberg said in the statement.

Claimants must “rove damages resulting from the spill itself and not other causes, but “physical proximity from the spill will not, in and of itself, bar the processing of legitimate claims,” he said.

His reversal on proximity is a victory for Florida hotel and restaurant owners, who hired a legal dream team to fight Feinberg and help businesses get their claims paid.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and state elected officials objected to Feinberg’s inclusion of proximity as a factor in paying claims. They said tourists stayed away from the Sunshine State because they had the perception that oil had contaminated areas of Florida even where it hadn’t.

Hotel and restaurant association to hold claims workshop in Panhandle Monday

Friday, October 1st, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association will hold the first of 19 workshops on Monday in Pensacola for business owners struggling to get their claims paid by BP claims czar Ken Feinberg.

The association hired a legal dream team to negotiate with Feinberg, who balked at paying for damages to businesses not directly impacted by oil-stained beaches caused by the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

The lawyers will be at the Hilton Pensacola Gulf Front hotel from 10 a.m. to noon C.T. and will give an overview of the claims process and help assist business owners to figure out whether they are eligible for payments and, if so, how much. They’ll also provide individual assistance.

The FRLA recently won a concession – of sorts – from Feinberg. He said he’d take into consideration tourists’ perception that Florida’s beaches were tar-infested, even when they were not, and the overall damage to Florida’s tourism brand caused by the oil spill.

CFO Sink opens BP claims complaint website

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has setup a web site to let disgruntled Floridians vent about their problems getting paid by BP claims czar Ken Feinberg.

Her new website – www.myfloridacfo.com/FloridaClaimsHelp/ – invites visitors to share their stories “if you’ve filed your claim and provided the documentation requested to the best of your ability but have not received a response or are getting the runaround.”

Feinberg, who took over the Gulf Coast Claims Facility on Aug. 23, this week promised larger, faster claims even as he tries to manage a backlog of more than 10,000 claims, many of them in Florida.

Sink and the Florida Cabinet are demanding that Feinberg speed up the payments and want them to show up at their next Cabinet meeting next month.

AG candidate Gelber joins chorus pushing for broader BP claims payments

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Add state Sen. Dan Gelber, the Democrat candidate for attorney general, to the list of pols criticizing BP claims czar Ken Feinberg for his handling of payments to Floridians harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Gelber, a former federal prosecutor from Miami Beach, sent a letter to Feinberg asking him to include the costs of preparing claims to payments to individuals and businesses. Feinberg said he won’t pay for legal or accounting fees associated with the filings.

“Citizens of our state are rightfully frustrated. They see promises from BP actors in commercials suggesting the company is prepared to do the right thing. Yet on the ground, they see obfuscation, and a process that is filled with more chutes than ladders,” Gelber wrote.

Gelber also joined Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democrat candidate for governor; Gov. Charlie Crist, the independent candidate for U.S. Senate; and Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Republican who lost the primary bid for governor, in demanding that Feinberg pay damages to those located where oil never reached the shore. Feinberg’s consideration of proximity to the oil spill in paying claims has been a major issue of contention since he took over BP’s botched claims process on Aug. 23.

Sink and the Florida Cabinet slammed Feinberg yesterday and Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon, a member of a statewide task force looking into the economic damages caused by the disaster, gave Feinberg just a few weeks to speed up payments to businesses on the brink of bankruptcy in Northwest Florida.

Sink, Florida Cabinet fed up with BP claims czar Feinberg

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink used an update this morning on Florida’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster to blast BP claims czar Ken Feinberg for paying too little, too late to Panhandle businesses and causing at least one company to close its doors.

“I’m kind of of the mind set that enough is enough,” Sink, the Democrat candidate for governor, said at this morning’s Cabinet meeting. “I don’t know about you all but I’m sick and tired of this. These desperate people through no fault of their own having to shut their business down? That’s horrendous!”

Sink said the owners of Harmony Beach Vacations in Destin sent her an e-mail yesterday telling her they were going out of business because their claim for lost revenues has languished under both BP and Feinberg, who took over the oil giant’s maligned claims process for individuals and businesses on Aug. 23.

(more…)

BP claims czar ‘making amends,’ won’t hire more adjusters

Friday, September 17th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Ken Feinberg, in charge of doling out billions of dollars in claims to victims of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, said he won’t hire more adjusters to speed up the process but acknowledged his system is not without problems.

“It is true that we’re not moving as fast as we should,” Feinberg said.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Gov. Charlie Crist this week asked Feinberg to appear before them at the next Cabinet meeting to explain why so many Panhandle business owners haven’t seen a dime since Feinberg took over BP’s maligned claims system on Aug. 23.

“We can do better. The criticism of the governor and Sink justifiable. But we’re making amends. And we’re improving the system,” Feinberg said.

Crist and Sink also demanded that he immediately hire more adjusters to help speed up the process.

“I don’t need to hire more people. It’s not a resource issue. It’s an internal ability of us to process claims as fast as we can. Simply throwing more people at the problem won’t solve it,” Feinberg said.

(more…)

Crist and Sink send bold letter to BP claims czar, ask for Cabinet appearance

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink want BP claims czar Ken Feinberg to appear before the Florida Cabinet and explain why his revamped claims process is in such a mess.

In a letter sent today, Sink, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Crist, the independent candidate in the three-way race for U.S. Senate, also asked Feinberg to immediately hire more people and spend more resources processing claims.

“Floridians continue to tell us that they cannot get their claims paid in a timely fashion,” Sink and Crist wrote. “Many Floridians who have been impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill need immediate relief just to make their next mortgage payment or make their next payroll.”

Feinberg met today with Attorney General Bill McCollum, who said afterward that he was “cautiously optimistic” that Feinberg would tweak his claims process to make it more Florida-friendly for folks trying to get tourism-related losses paid.

Claimants have complained that Feinberg, in charge of doling out much of the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility fund set up by BP, has reneged on his earlier promise to pay individuals 48 within hours and businesses within a week of receiving their claim.

At yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Sink read an e-mail Pensacola business owner Jeff Elbert, also head of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, who said that he doesn’t know of a single beach business that’s been paid since Feinberg took over BP’s botched claims process on Aug. 23.

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