Now, it’s the One Fund – He was asked, so Ken Feinberg said yes

— Photo by Barry Stringfellow

In the coming weeks, Ken Feinberg, in his capacity of overseeing victim compensation for the One Fund, Boston 2013, will hear firsthand the grisly, intimate details of the injuries, dismemberments, and deaths that took place at the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15th. He will attempt to console those bereaved beyond belief. He’ll see, up close, the profound depth of their grief. And somehow, he will have to assign a monetary value to it all.

The One Fund is the latest in a long line of victim compensation funds that Mr. Feinberg has overseen. He is perhaps best known for managing the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Over the course of a tumultuous 33 months, Mr. Feinberg oversaw the distribution of $7.1 billion to 5,300 eligible claimants. In the process, he had more than 900 private meetings with families of the deceased.

Mr. Feinberg’s firm, Feinberg Rozen LLP, has been involved with many of the headline-grabbing calamities of the past 12 years. While his firm was paid for work on the BP oil spill compensation fund, most of Mr. Feinberg’s work — 9/11, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., and now the One Fund — he does pro bono.

Mr. Feinberg is also the author of two books about his experience managing victim compensation funds, “What is Life Worth?” and “Who Gets What?”

This past week, at rest in his Lambert’s Cove, West Tisbury home, Mr. Feinberg discussed, in a chowder-thick Brockton accent, his path from indifferent high school student in a blue collar neighborhood to one of the preeminent attorneys in the nation, the go-to guy for the past two United States presidents when someone was needed to step into the breach of unprecedented catastrophe.

MVT: You had to spend an enormous amount of time and energy to get eligible 9/11 victims to make claims. Why do you think that was?

Mr. Feinberg: Grief. People get paralyzed by grief.

MVT: Do you see the same challenge with the One Fund?

Mr. Feinberg: The One Fund I don’t think will be a problem. I did express concern about the speed of claimants filling, but I have little doubt that by June 15, we’ll have literally all of the claims filed. And the money will go out on June 30. You know, you look at these funds and I’m constantly amazed by the charity and empathy of the American people. In One Fund Boston, over 50,000 people, 50,000 individuals, have sent in checks.

MVT: After the claim deadline on June 15, you have two weeks to make a lot of crucial decisions.

Mr. Feinberg: A lot of decisions. They’re driven by two variables. One — how much money is there? How much money is there to distribute? [At this writing, the fund is about to break $36 million.] That varies from disaster to disaster, tragedy to tragedy. The second question is, when all is said and done, what is the nature of the claims. How many amputations are there? Single amputations, double amputations, how many were in hospital and for how long? There are about ten still in hospital. Until you know the quantity and quality of the claims, it’s hard to put a dollar value. That’s why we need two weeks between deadline and rewards.

There are four categories of eligibility: Priority one goes to the families who lost loved ones. Then double amputees and one lady with permanent brain damage. Priority two is single amputation. Priority three will be hospitalization — how long were you in the hospital? The longer you’re in hospital, the more you can attain. Final category that we added after the town hall meetings in BPL (Boston Public Library) — emergency outpatient treatment — you went to the hospital, they stitched you up or set a bone.

MVT: Given how slowly legal and political systems work, it’s amazing that you can distribute funds so quickly.

Mr. Feinberg: Rough justice. You do it by adopting a formula based on very rough justice. Let’s say there are two double amputees — one is a banker, making a million a year, with tons of insurance, versus the other amputee, a laborer, making 40K a year, with five kids. You could say, with great justification, let’s give more to the laborer, who needs the money more than the banker with one million. But if you do that, you’re going to ask people to send me their tax returns and insurance policies; there’s no time for that. If you’re an amputee, the money that’s going to be distributed is so modest relative to the nature of the injuries, I’m not going to start with that. In the interest of speed, transparency, and egalitarianism, you move very quickly, without the legal system, which would be looking at the financial background of each claimant, pain and suffering, emotional distress, no. It’s rough justice.

You could make a very strong case, I must say, for need-based compensation, but in cases like this, I don’t think the donors ever intended it. I don’t think donors donated thinking, is this going to a banker or a laborer. They wanted to help.

MVT: Is there a better way to resolve these claims?

Mr. Feinberg: Every time I’m asked to do this, there are some common denominators, but every one is different. You’re asked to do it because it worked the last time you did it. One of these days, it won’t work, and I’ll be put out to pasture and someone else will do it.

MVT: When you talk to the injured and their loved ones, how much does religion come up?

Mr. Feinberg: It’s a fascinating thing, the role of religion in all of it. I would say half the people that are the victims of life’s misfortune, that misfortune reinforces faith in religion. Half are more religious after than before. The other half — there is no God. No God could allow this to happen to me and my loved one. It’s amazing the role religion plays in victim reaction to grief. Some reinforced, others, if not disbelievers, they are now.

MVT: Do you consider yourself a religious man?

Mr. Feinberg: No. It’s more religious values than doctrinal adherence that I find important. All religions instill respect for fellow man, respect for the underdog, a higher being that has some role to play, I don’t know what it is.

MVT: You’ve been the recipient of a lot of anger. Bereaved people have said to you, “I spit on your children,” even though you were trying to help them. How does that affect you?

Mr. Feinberg: It bothers you, but you balance it against their loss. They’re flailing away at you as a bureaucrat with dollars and cents when they’ve lost a loved one. You can’t get angry at them: that’s no solution. You internalize it, and you bite your lip, but you have a job to do. These people have suffered a horrible, traumatic loss. Sure it impacts you, you take a walk, sit on a park bench, you take a deep breath, but it’s not personal. These tragedies bring out the best and worst in human nature. You brace yourself every time you do it, be prepared for anger, disappointment, frustration. The reaction of victims and their families is as diverse as human nature. You need to get the money out fast. All the words in the world don’t matter. When these funds are created, it’s expected to get the money out with a minimum of delay and a minimum of fuss and bother.

MVT: Why do you do this?

Mr. Feinberg: In the case of 9/11, the President of the United States and the Attorney General asks you to take on this assignment, so let’s go. I’m just one citizen trying to help other citizens. That’s something I was taught years ago by my boss, Ted Kennedy. I think there are thousands of people in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that could do what I’m doing with One Fund Boston. I’m asked to do it, I do it. Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, and being inspired by President Kennedy and the call for public service, that’s impacted me a great deal. Growing up in Brockton in late fifties and early sixties, that’s when government wasn’t a bad name. President Kennedy rallied people to serve your country with honor. It’s not like it is today with so much criticism of government, which I think is largely unjustified.

MVT: It must have been a coup to work as Senator Ted Kennedy’s chief-of-staff later in life.

Mr. Feinberg: It was the greatest job I ever had. I spent five years working for Senator Kennedy, that was on the official payroll. [laugh] If you worked for Senator Kennedy, he never let you go too far away. He was an incredible public servant. Incredible. [Mr. Feinberg, a pallbearer at Senator Kennedy’s funeral, makes a rare pause.] He used to bring his boat over here to the Vineyard and meet my wife and I. He’d dock in O.B. or Vineyard Haven or Menemsha sometimes, and we’d all go out for dinner.

MVT: You said that you weren’t much of a student until you went to UMass Amherst, then you took off. Was there a mentor involved?

Mr. Feinberg: There were several. Three professors of history, Mario DePillis, Milton Cantor, and Theodore Caldwell. They got me focused. [Mr. Feinberg has since endowed a history lecture series at UMass.] When I went from Brockton High, I was a little bit, shall we say, erratic. I was thinking of applying to drama school. I was very active in high school and college in live theater. My father took me aside when I was in college and said, ‘You know son, I read that there are a lot of actors in NYC starving, waiting on tables, trying to get their big break, why don’t you instead go to law school and put your acting abilities to the courtroom?’ And I said, ‘All right, I’ll do that.’

MVT: That was pretty good advice.

Mr. Feinberg: Yes it was. A father’s excellent advice.

MVT: When did you first come to the Vineyard?

Mr. Feinberg: About 25 years ago. I had Brockton High School friends living on the Vineyard. The Mones, Barry and Joan Koretz, Bob and Linda Epstein. So I started renting every year, different places. Last seven years on Indian Hill Road behind up-Island Cronig’s. Finally, we built this place two years ago. [He nods to the panoramic view of Lambert’s Cove and Vineyard Sound beyond.] I love the Vineyard. We come here year-round. Spend time in the winter, Thanksgivings, it’s wonderful. There’s something about an island, I don’t know if it’s existential or real, but I gotta tell ya, you can live on Cape Cod, it’s different on the Vineyard. It rejuvenates your batteries and it reinforces your resolve to deal with all the stress and turmoil that comes with doing the job right. I can read a book, relax, see friends, have my children and grandchildren come up. It’s nice.

MVT: What’s a typical day here for you?

Mr. Feinberg: I’m up very early, around five am. I go over to Stan’s Apothecary [a.k.a. Conroy’s, in West Tisbury] get the newspapers and a cup of coffee. Then there’s hikes, there’s art shows, the movies, great restaurants. But it’s down time. Try to relax the best you can. And Monday through Friday, eight am, rain or shine, along with Mr. Packer, we have our little summit meeting on Bobby Mone’s porch. We’re done by nine am. Just coffee, looking over the harbor, it’s become a regular ritual. We’ve had some interesting guests. Mr. Packer one year brought the head of the Panama Canal by, another time the chief of Texaco. I’m the only cigar smoker left.

[Leaving his house, Mr. Feinberg picks up one of three cigars, all in various states of consumption, sitting on a planter.]

MVT: You’re one of the top mediators in the country, and you can’t negotiate a room to smoke a cigar?

Mr. Feinberg: Are you kidding? What I’ve found over the years, I have this reputation as a mediator, I’ll go to my wife and say why don’t I mediate some dispute between family members? She tells me to stay the hell out of it.

MVT: Have you ever been asked to mediate any conflicts on the Island? Did anyone approach you about the Roundabout at the Blinker or a potential roundabout at Five Corners?

Mr. Feinberg: When I come here, I try to avoid any looming, thorny litigations. Thanks, I’ll refer someone to you.

MVT: Do you think you’ll retire here?

Mr. Feinberg: Someday, if I was going to retire, this would be the place to do it. But I don’t think I’ll ever retire.

The next morning, a frigid, blustery Memorial Day, Mr. Feinberg joined his childhood friend Bob Mone, at eight am, on the dock at Mone’s Insurance on Beach Road. Today, they’re joined by fellow Brocktonian and longtime Vineyard resident Fritz Knight. Topics include bean bag basketball that was played in Mr. Feinberg’s childhood kitchen, his mother’s Matzoh pizza, great Brockton High football players of the past, the inane practice of naming blizzards like hurricanes, the Chase brothers from the old neighborhood, Tommy and Jimmy, may they rest in peace, and Mr. Mone’s imminent transition to grandfather.

Ralph Packer, Island stalwart and owner of R. M. Packer Company, next door, joins the conversation. After talking about the technology in the new pipe he’s installing due to the damage sustained in this past winter’s storms, Mr. Packer offers congratulations to Mr. Feinberg for his appointment to head the One Fund.

“So you got a call from the mayor?” Mr. Packer said.

“I did, Ralph,” Mr. Feinberg said.

“He’s got a good man,” Mr. Packer said.