TAMPA — President Barack Obama's newly appointed BP claims czar promised greater and prompter payouts for Floridians facing economic losses from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill during his first official stop in the state Thursday.
In what he promised would be the first of many visits, Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg met Gov. Charlie Crist in Tampa for a private, hourlong discussion of his emerging claims process.
Feinberg said victims will soon receive payments in six-month lump sums instead of smaller, monthly checks, per Crist's request. He also agreed to come back to Florida to meet with Crist and business owners whose earnings have sunk since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion began releasing streams of oil into the gulf on April 20.
"You cannot do this from Washington," said Feinberg, who oversaw compensation for Sept. 11 victims. "You have to come down to Florida and Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana and meet local people who are adversely impacted by the spill."
He vowed to staff claims offices throughout the state with local people who will guide confused or overwhelmed victims through the application process.
Crist and Feinberg both made overtures of swift assistance and efficient responses.
"We have a duty and an obligation, as much as is humanly possible, to make people and small business owners whole in the wake of this incredible disaster that we are all dealing with," Crist said.
But when and to what extent Florida will benefit from the $20 billion claims fund provided by BP at Obama's behest remained unknown. Feinberg said he expects BP to turn over the claims process to his staff this month. His work will be guided by discussions with those most affected by the spill, he said.
As of this week, BP has cut more than 6,000 checks in Florida and paid out $20 million, according to BP.
Feinberg urged all businesses with financial woes traceable to the spill to file a claim, including Tampa Bay area businesses battling fears that local shores are or will soon be tainted with oil.
"I can't help anyone in Florida if they don't file a claim," he said.
Still, applicants will need to support their claims, and Feinberg has asked the Justice Department to weed out dishonest petitions, he said. "Nothing will undercut the credibility of this program more than the evidence of fraud," he said.
Feinberg had previously met with other gulf state governors, but delayed meeting with Crist until Thursday. With their political careers now inextricably mired in oil muck, Crist and Feinberg both seemed eager to present an agreeable front.
Feinberg earned his post after some national leaders deemed the Obama administration's response to the spill uncoordinated at best.
Crist, an independent candidate for U.S. Senate, also needs a triumphant finale. He has replaced campaign stops with frequent visits to the Florida panhandle in recent weeks, a gamble that seems to be paying off.
Before meeting with Feinberg, Crist addressed government leaders gathered for a state conference in Tampa.
"These claims need to be paid, and they need to be paid now," he said, drawing a shower of applause at the event hosted by the Florida Association of Counties, a group typically critical of Crist's policies.
Hours later, Feinberg declared his meeting with Crist a success.
"The governor did most of the talking, and I did most of the listening," Feinberg said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846.