Tampa Bay businesses hurt by the BP oil spill may get a piece of the $20 billion compensation fund after all.
Kenneth Feinberg, whose agency rules on damage claims, said Monday he would not disqualify claims simply because a business wasn't near places where oil washed up.
Hotels and restaurants in Tampa Bay and other locations far from the spill say they lost money as tourists and business groups spooked by news reports of oil in the Panhandle went to other states.
"Motels and hotels might be in St. Petersburg and Tampa, far from the spill, and still have been adversely affected,'' Feinberg told the St. Petersburg Times. "I'm convinced some sort of general proximity (rule) should not be applied. I will now examine each claim and see if the claimant can document that damage.''
His decision came as a relief to Keith Overton, chief operating officer of the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach. BP's adjuster rejected the resort's claim for $1.15 million in lost profits during the six months following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April.
On Friday, Feinberg told Overton he would process the TradeWinds claim but couldn't say how much the resort will receive. About 2,000 claims in Florida were not being paid under the old proximity rule, said Overton, who also serves as chair of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
"I believe in Feinberg's heart of hearts, he wanted to pay these claims all along but struggled with how to do it,'' Overton said. "The pressure came from BP's decision earlier on to rule out those with no oil on their beach or claimants which were not close to the spill.''
Feinberg credited Gov. Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum for convincing him the spill damaged a wide swath of businesses, both near and far from oily beaches.
"It's the right thing to do,'' Crist said. "It will be a tremendous benefit to Florida, no doubt about it.''
Sink wondered aloud what took Feinberg so long to change the proximity rule. "I mean, give me a break,'' she said. "The TradeWinds lost business, and it wasn't a fluke. It was because of the oil spill. Use some common sense.''
Delays in the claims process frustrate businesses taking part and confuses those still deciding whether to file, said Robin Grabowski, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. The deadline for filing an emergency claim is Nov. 23.
The Friendly Fisherman Restaurant in Madeira Beach made a $31,000 claim in July with BP's adjuster. When chief financial officer Patricia Hubbard called Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility last month, an agent told her the file was still under review. She's still waiting.
"We figured once they paid that first claim to a business, it will be like (the first) domino falling over,'' Hubbard said. "This is a big step toward that.''
Other issues in the claims process have popped up around the Gulf Coast.
Some boat owners submitted pay stubs for more deckhands than they'd need to operate their boats. One restaurant worker declared that his income dropped after the spill, but it turned out the restaurant had closed before Deepwater Horizon blew up.
A law firm in New Orleans alerted Feinberg to reports of their clients getting letters from people claiming to work with Feinberg, using fake stationery and requesting wire transfer information that can be used for electronic theft.
In all, about 31,000 claims have little or no documentation — 1,000 more are "very suspicious," Feinberg said, and are being held for further examination.
"They're not just sitting there," he said. "We can't pay them without more documentation — minimal documentation, but enough to process the claim."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8128.