Kenneth Feinberg, whose pro bono publico work in the 9/11 Compensation Fund was widely lauded, is back again administering the $20 billion BP Compensation Fund and is in the middle of a publicity tour on the Gulf of Mexico. C-SPAN just posted a video of him discussing the Fund and his work on it this morning.
Unlike with the 9/11 Fund, though, this time Feinberg is getting paid, and that raises a few questions.
Nobody questions Feinberg’s integrity, but the whole point of having a nation of law, not men, is to make everyone accountable to that law, and Professor Byron Stier at the Mass Tort Litigation Blog raises the right issues:
The issue of Feinberg’s compensation is interesting. Feinberg worked pro bono on the 9/11 victim compensation fund — a remarkable and laudable commitment given the substantial time involved. I’m not suggesting that Feinberg should go on doing such monumental administrative tasks pro bono — but is it appropriate for him to keep his compensation from BP confidential?
As with the 9/11 fund, Feinberg will likely have tremendous discretion in fashioning the administrative claim mechanism for the BP compensation fund. His exercise of discretion could possibly result in BP saving substantial funds, especially if any remainder of the $20 billion fund is to be returned to BP. Accordingly, a fair process at a minimum requires that both the amount of his compensation, and the method of compensation be disclosed publicly. If BP has the ability to review and cut his billable hours or his billable-hour rate, for example, Feinberg might have a conflict of interest that could lead him unconsciously to favor BP in structuring the administrative fund or making awards.
Andrew Perlman at Legal Ethics Forum follows up:
I haven’t followed the details of the BP fund, but if there is little or no chance that there will be money in the fund after the awards are made (a seemingly plausible assumption), I’m not sure I see how Mr. Feinberg’s behavior could be impacted (consciously or unconsciously) by his compensation. BP is out the $20 billion regardless of how the proceeds are distributed. Are there other ways in which Mr. Feinberg’s conduct might be affected by how his compensation is structured?
I’m not Feinberg’s accountant, but from the little bit I know about his practice — like his role in resolving the multibillion-dollar antitrust suit by AmEx against MBNA — I’m confident that Feinberg is doing quite well financially, and isn’t planning on making this Fund into his own retirement. Similarly, in light of his unpaid commitment to the 9/11 Fund, I imagine he values his reputation, not to mention his dignity and integrity, over any quibbling over billable hours that he might get from BP.
On paper, there’s no obvious reason for concern. But Roger Ebert’s rules for critics comes to mind:
No commercial endorsements. This used to be a given in journalism ethics. A critic must be especially vigilant. If you express approval of a product, you must sincerely believe what you are saying. How will we know you’re sincere? Because you have (1) accepted no money, (2) or donated the money to a charity, and (3) have not accepted a free example of the product, except in such cases as foodstuffs, where the difficulties are apparent. You gotta eat ’em to review ’em. The Sun-Times has a policy: All Christmas gifts must be returned, except for perishables like papayas, etc. Candy is not a perishable. Neither, to the incredulity of many reporters, is liquor. Back to endorsements. Were I to recommend, say, a rice cooker, that must not imply I obtained it for free, or that 100 lb. sacks of rice were being dropped at my door. I mention this because I may be compelled to recommend a rice cooker in the very near future, in defense of my Who’s Who entry, which claims I can cook almost anything in a rice cooker.
No advertisements. Gene Siskel, who I frequently quote as a fierce paragon of high standards, used to quote what someone, maybe it was David Mamet, told him: "As a critic, everything you say depends on your credibility. When you sell that, somebody else owns it." Gene and I (regretfully) turned down offers in the extremely low seven figures from a fast food chain and an airline. "After we retire, then it would be okay," we speculated. Even then, maybe not. Look at Fred Astaire. How many people thought they were paying him for their dance lessons? They look at "Swing Time" on TCM, and say, "There’s that bastard who overcharged me for the mambo."
The emphasis of Mamet’s quote is mine. Fact is, Feinberg is being paid by BP to run the Fund, and being paid by BP to promote the Fund. That’s enough to create the appearance of impropriety.
Among judges, it is unnecessary to demonstrate the reality of impartiality; the paramount concern is the appearance of impropriety:
The goal of section 455(a) is to avoid even the appearance of partiality. If it would appear to a reasonable person that a judge has knowledge of facts that would give him an interest in the litigation then an appearance of partiality is created even though no actual partiality exists because the judge does not recall the facts, because the judge actually has no interest in the case or because the judge is pure in heart and incorruptible. The judge’s forgetfulness, however, is not the sort of objectively ascertainable fact that can avoid the appearance of partiality. Hall v. Small Business Administration, 695 F. 2d 175, 179 (5th Cir. 1983). Under section 455(a), therefore, recusal is required even when a judge lacks actual knowledge of the facts indicating his interest or bias in the case if a reasonable person, knowing all the circumstances, would expect that the judge would have actual knowledge." 796 F. 2d, at 802.
Liljeberg v. Health Services Acquisition Corp., 486 US 847, 860-862 (1988)(quoting the Second Circuit).
So it goes with Ken Feinberg.
What will it take to fix that? Personally, I don’t think we need to know every detail, but we do need to know more.
I don’t need to know exactly how much he is being paid, but I do want to know if it is (a) hourly or fixed and (b) if it is significantly above or below his normal rate. Those two elements could, potentially, create an incentive either to draw out the work or to hurry through the claims to get back to his more profitable work.
Do I think he will do that? No, but that’s not the issue: the issue is if it appears that his judgment could be affected by his compensation, and I think it’s fair to say such an appearance exists. The victims of the spill — the ones who are being asked to trust his judgment — deserve to know a little more before they sign on.