9/11 claims administrator will address the Exchange

The most impactful, arbitrating, actuarial mind you might never have heard of, Kenneth Feinberg, will address Atlantans at The Temple on Tuesday, Dec. 15, for the Exchange, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s networking and philanthropy event.

The “Pay Czar” Feinberg will present “The Business of Providing Hope,” a Jewish look at how he has become the world’s leading claims administrator.

Kenneth Feinberg says the case of the Zapruder Film was his oddest decision.

Kenneth Feinberg says the case of the Zapruder Film was his oddest decision.

Developing and implementing programs compensating victims of 9/11, the BP oil spill, the Sandy Hook school shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre, and General Motors’ deadly safety flaws, Feinberg is trusted by both sides in coming to terms with the most profound tragedies of our time.

In his distinctive Boston accent, Feinberg in our interview revealed the burdens of sharing sorrows and picking up the pieces afterward — in other words, deciding who gets how much money.

Jaffe: How did growing up in Brockton, Mass., prepare you for this responsibility?

Feinberg: My Jewish upbringing gave me a basic understanding of compensation and responding to grief. Jewish communities do not grieve alone. Through our shiva, we have a collective response. We rally at the gravesite; we wash and prepare our dead.

Jaffe: What was your first case? Did you just fall into this specialty?

Feinberg: In 1984 I was appointed by New York Judge Jack Weinstein to mediate the Agent Orange claim. That was the springboard, but I had years of experience as a mediator behind me.

Jaffe: So it’s like an actuarial table assigning a number as to what any one person’s life is worth?

Feinberg: Yes. Every day in Atlanta, for example, judges and juries attach a value to lives. And rabbis ponder moral integrity. But we have formulas as to what a person would have earned professionally had they lived, based on age and the Department of Labor statistics. Then come the pain and suffering part. Dealing with grief is a very profound responsibility. In some ways it comes out as cold. The hardest part is making the offer. I have to brace myself.

Jaffe: You dole out billions. In some cases your own compensation was $1.2 million a month. That’s pretty astounding.

Feinberg: In cases involving companies like BP and GM, that’s what my firm got paid. Remember that in most cases — 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and various massacres — we worked up to 33 consecutive months out of patriotic duty (no fee). I have been asked by presidents and have willingly done so pro bono.

Jaffe: There was press about fraudulent claims, especially in the BP oil spill case.

Feinberg: We are ever vigilant of fraud. Unfortunately, where there is human nature, there is greed. Out of those 1,200,000 cases, 18,000 were suspicious. And there were indictments and convictions.

Jaffe: You have also been accused of a lack of transparency.

Feinberg: The public can indeed know the rules of how we decide. What individuals get is not for publication.

Jaffe: You talk about a fireman’s widow spitting at you. What’s your emotional toll?

Feinberg: I spend hours upon hours of listening and counseling victims. It is gut-wrenching. By and large, we rarely have complaints after an award is made.

Jaffe: What’s the oddest decision you have made?
Feinberg: The Zapruder Film, where an elderly Jewish Dallas shop owner, Abraham Zapruder, shot the film of JFK’s assassination that Life magazine and others fought over. I was on a three-party panel where we awarded $17 million for fair market value.

Jaffe: What was the toughest?

Feinberg: 9/11 by far. It was an unanticipated calamity that scared us all. We still haven’t gotten over it. I conducted over 950 individual hearings with victims. There is not one family member I’ve met who wouldn’t gladly give back the check or, in many cases, their own lives to have that loved one back. “Happy” never enters into this equation.

Jaffe: How did you get connected to the Federation?

Feinberg: That’s thanks to my wife, DeDe, who was the former head of the D.C. Federation and now chairs the national executive committee. She is the impetus.

Jaffe: What do you do to relax?

Feinberg: Classical music and theater are my outlets. We love opera. Of course, my three children and grandchildren are tops too.

Jaffe: I saw you on “60 Minutes” and was awed.

Feinberg: How did I do?

Jaffe: I was so proud that you had a Jewish name. That’s what I remember. What a brilliant, kind man.