Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A willing master of the Hokie Spirit fund

Kenneth Feinberg's prior work with the 9/11 fund helped prepare him for the raw emotions he faces.

Kenneth R. Feinberg

Gene Dalton | The Roanoke Times

Kenneth R. Feinberg

  • Age: 61
  • Residence: Bethesda, Md.
  • Family: Wife, Diane; children, Michael, Leslie and Andrew; and granddaughter, Zoe
  • Job: Administrator of the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund. Feinberg is also founder and managing partner of the Feinberg Group, a law firm specializing in the negotiated resolution of complex legal disputes, with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York. The noted mediator spent almost three years serving as special master of the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, and a book about his experience, “What is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11,” was published in 2005. In addition to working with big-name American businesses, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb , General Electric, Exxon and Pfizer, Feinberg has served as an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, University of Pennsylvania Law School, New York University School of Law, Columbia Law School and the University of Virginia School of Law.
  • Quotable: Asked about the effect he sees his work with the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund having on his career, Feinberg said he sees none. “I’m glad to do it — I don’t think profile or ambition or career had anything to do with this. I doubt it will have any effect whatsoever; I’m just glad to help the Virginia Tech community.”

Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund

  • Created as a single fund, the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund has evolved into an umbrella for 34 funds, including 32 named funds, one for each victim; a general scholarship fund; and a fund for the broad support of the university community and the families of those involved.
  • Kenneth Feinberg drafted a proposed distribution plan for the fund in mid-July and is expected to have a final plan on Wednesday. He has said that he hopes to begin processing applications through September and “have checks cut or tuition paid for certainly no later than November 1.”
  • Under Feinberg’s proposal, families of students and faculty killed in the shootings would have a choice of receiving a $150,000 payment or dividing that amount between a cash payment and an endowed scholarship in the name of their loved one. Wounded victims who were hospitalized for 15 days or more would be eligible for $75,000 payments, and those hospitalized three to 14 days would qualify for $25,000. In each case, victims also could choose to divide the amounts between cash payments and scholarships. Victims who suffered less serious physical injuries would be eligible for $8,000 payments.

BLACKSBURG -- By the time Kenneth Feinberg stepped in to administer the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, the fund was 2 12 months old, more than $7.1 million strong and facing increasing criticism from the people it strived to help.

Virginia Tech administrators -- novices in the highly emotional work of crime victim compensation -- were in over their heads.

Enter Feinberg, a man who colleagues say has witnessed more than his share of "horrible raw emotion."

As special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, the Washington lawyer had spent almost three years acting as the fund's public face and ultimate authority.

If anyone knew what it was like to battle questions of worth and due, all the while facing fire from victims' families, survivors and the public, it was Feinberg.

That didn't mean handling the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund would be simple.

"It was easier substantively -- there weren't near the number of victims, there is a finite amount of money and distribution isn't required by any statute to give different amounts" to different victims, Feinberg said. "But you're still dealing with individuals who are in grief or in pain, and that part of the role never gets easier."

At least this time, though, he had experience to guide him.

Feinberg's work with the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund began about a month after the April 16 shootings, shortly after he received a call from Mary Vail Ware, director of Virginia's Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund. Ware had worked with Feinberg during the aftermath of 9/11 and was phoning a number of experts on Tech's behalf.

The university needed help with fund distribution, Ware told Feinberg. Did he have any advice?

He did, and he decided to hand-deliver it.

"I came down to Blacksburg for a day and met with President [Charles] Steger and other members of the Virginia Tech administration and, right then and there, they asked if I would come on as a pro bono unpaid consultant," said Feinberg, who is founder and managing partner of the Feinberg Group, a high-profile law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York.

His response was almost immediate.

"He mentioned it to me and we both just looked at each other and said, 'Of course,' " said Camille Biros, business manager for Feinberg's law firm.

"There were some 20,000 donors who gave money to the fund, all in the hope that it would be used wisely and effectively," Feinberg explained. "In light of the tragedy, and the willingness of so many thousands of people to contribute dollars to the fund, I thought the least I could do was spend a few months helping make sure the fund had its maximum impact."

Ware was relieved.

"I think it's helpful to not have the walking wounded serving the wounded," she said. "By having Ken there, they have someone outside the situation looking at it critically and offering sound advice."

For Tech, the chance to pass the fund's control to such a well-tested expert was an obvious asset.

"We now realize that we are not in a position to pre-suppose what is best for victims or their families," Steger said in an announcement about Feinberg's appointment. "With no experience in dealing with crime victims, we felt it best to seek expert advice in disbursements of these monies."

Steger and other Tech administrators who met with Feinberg were unavailable for comment on their impressions of the lawyer.

But Biros, who has worked with Feinberg for more than 27 years, described him as "dynamic," "very, very bright" and "extremely generous."

After 9/11, "when he was sort of thrown into town hall meetings with family members, he was the only one there for them to express their angst and horror," she said. "He very quickly learned you have to take this slow and go one step at a time to understand how to deal with this type of emotion."

Feinberg and Biros met similar heartbreak soon after they began work on the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund.

"The scale of it is so much different, but we were just remarking in our conversations with each other, the feeling is exactly the same," Biros said. "It's like you can close your eyes and go back in time."

In mid-July, Feinberg drew up a draft distribution plan for the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund and began scheduling meetings to discuss it with those affected.

Embedded within the proposal, Feinberg said, were two lessons gleaned from his 9/11 fund days.

The first is to offer the same compensation for all who died.

The second, he said, "is the incredible importance of transparency, of due process, of meeting directly with families in large groups and individually to give people an opportunity to comment on the protocol [and] to vent about life's unfairness."

Hours after a July 30 meeting in Trenton, N.J., Feinberg said he'd met with more than 100 people at gatherings throughout the eastern United States and was pleased with the way discussions were going.

"The families and the students who I've met with have been extremely gracious," he said then. "They're understandably angry and frustrated with life's misfortunes, but they have been extremely gracious to me personally, and very constructive, and I'm grateful to them for a host of suggestions on how to improve the draft protocol."

But Feinberg's efforts aren't always embraced.

In a post made to a Web site that chronicles the recovery of wounded shooting victim Sean McQuade, McQuade's mother, Jody, wrote: "Mr. Feinberg did make notations about how we felt, but my feeling is he already knows what they intend to do and is just humoring us with the meeting."

"It was even over exactly when it was scheduled to be over," she added. "How ironic!"

The noted mediator, however, is no stranger to criticism.

In his 2005 book, "What is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11," Feinberg writes that some 9/11 family members "took the microphone during town hall meetings to denounce me as 'arrogant' and 'insensitive.' "

Others, he writes, viewed him as a representative of the U.S. government and "I became an outlet for all their anger arising out of 9/11, including their anger over the government's failure to prevent the attacks."

Asked if he thought he was now taking some heat for Tech, Feinberg nodded.

"I am the person who is targeted by many families to send a message back to Virginia Tech as to their concerns, yes," he said. "I expect that. It's part of the process. It's perfectly understandable."

His skin perhaps thickened by years of managing the 9/11 fund, Feinberg seems able to rationalize anger and frustration with relative ease.

"Ken understands that he's not making people whole; he's not making anybody happy," Ware said. "He's just trying to do the best he can to help them any way he can."

Even so, the job takes its toll.

"It's difficult," Feinberg said. But "unlike the 9/11 fund, which occupied my time for 33 months, this is a two- to three-month assignment, and it's a burden, but it's one that I'm glad to assume."

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