TALLAHASSEE — Prodded by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, top state officials on Tuesday agreed to pressure the oil spill claims manager to process pleas for help faster.
The criticism at the highest levels of state government was aimed at Ken Feinberg, the Massachusetts lawyer who, on a visit to Florida on Tuesday, said he remains "skeptical" of claims that are from areas not in close proximity to the Deepwater Horizon disaster off the Louisiana coast.
But in response to a volley of criticism from area businesses, Feinberg said he will consider paying claims to Florida hotels and restaurants, regardless of whether they experienced oil washing ashore.
During a Cabinet meeting, Sink cited the "sheer desperation" expressed by a Panhandle business owner, Jeff Elbert, president of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Elbert, who met with Feinberg in July, said that as of Monday, he knew of not one Pensacola beach-related business that has been compensated due to lost business arising from the spill.
"Most of the small businesses have run out of cash reserves and are desperately in need of the prompt relief that was promised by Mr. Feinberg," Elbert told Sink, warning that dozens of area businesses could shut their doors.
"It's just not right," Sink said. "We ought to express extreme concern about this situation … Businesses are about to fail and shut their doors."
Gov. Charlie Crist agreed with Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson to send a letter to Feinberg, who was named by President Barack Obama, with BP's concurrence, to serve as an independent administrator for the compensation fund.
Crist emphasized that a stronger sense of urgency is needed to handle "legitimate" claims.
Referring to the $20-billion compensation fund Feinberg is managing on behalf of spill victims, Crist said: "That's no good unless it's utilized."
The fund has paid out $175-million since Feinberg took over the claims processing work three weeks ago.
In Orlando, Feinberg met with the lobbying arm of the state's hotel and restaurant industry and said he is gradually becoming more open to the idea that businesses, including those in Florida, are hurting even though they are in areas where no oil washed ashore.
"I was skeptical of the eligibility of lodging and restaurants far from the spill. I still am skeptical," Feinberg said. "But I must say, that having spent a good time chatting … I'm trying to help. I'm walking a tightrope."
"If I say no, what have I done but drive you into the court system?" Feinberg added.
Leaders of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said thousands of members have had their claims rejected or delayed because of the proximity issue.
Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, also blasted the Republican-controlled Legislature, and emphasized that the Legislature missed an opportunity to change state laws to give Florida a stronger legal footing in demanding compensation.
Her office released a document that cited "gaps" in Florida laws compared to laws in another state that make it more difficult for businesses in Florida to receive compensation. The analysis cited a series of laws in Alaska that give residents and businesses there a better chance of compensation than exists either in Florida law or under the rules implemented by Feinberg.
The oil spill occurred April 20. The Legislature met briefly for part of the afternoon of July 20 and its sole action was to reject Crist's call for a proposed constitutional amendment to permanently ban oil drilling off Florida's coast.
Also Tuesday, the state's top environmental official told Crist and Cabinet members that a full assessment of the potential damage to Florida from the spill remains in its preliminary stages.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.