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For Man Overseeing Sept. 11 Fund, Terrorist Tragedy Hasn’t Gone Away by Sharon Samber

October 10, 2002
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It’s been more than a year since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and many people no longer think about the tragedy every day.

Kenneth Feinberg does.

As the special master overseeing a congressionally mandated compensation fund for victims’ families, Feinberg is constantly reminded of the relatives’ pain and grief.

Feinberg, a Washington attorney and Georgetown University law professor in his mid-50s, approaches his task with pragmatism and a philosophical outlook: He knows he has a job to do, but he also probes questions of morality behind the issue, even questioning the whole compensation program.

The idea of a public program is wonderful, he says, yet he still wonders about how the fund of “public compassion” is working out in practice.

He says he has not resolved in his own mind why such a program is justified, when families of victims of other terrorist attacks do not have the same recourse.

Working with such an emotionally charged issue and with grief-stricken families takes its toll, and Feinberg reaches back to his Jewish roots to keep himself grounded.

“What’s helped me is being brought up in a Jewish home,” he said. “The concepts of tzedakah and helping your fellow man — they’ve helped me be sensitive.”

Only 750 families, out of 3,300 who are eligible, have applied for compensation so far, Feinberg said.

Feinberg believes many families have not signed up because they are clinically depressed and cannot bring themselves to apply. He is trying to find a way to help them register before the program expires in December 2003.

The compensation program allows victims and families to apply for federal money to cover lost wages, pain and suffering, if they agree not to file lawsuits against the airlines and other entities.

The Sept. 11 victims fund began amid much controversy and criticism. Families were unsure if their cases would be heard fairly, and skeptics wondered if compensation awards would be sufficient.

The first awards were announced in August. Fourteen cases were decided late last month for an average award of $1.75 million each, prompting the families’ attorneys to praise the fund.

At last week’s annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Feinberg told several hundred attendees how important the work of charities has been to many families.

“I have renewed faith in charities,” he said, praising the federations and calling them essential to the functioning of the Jewish community.

Feinberg has won praise from victims’ families for his sincerity and his willingness to help. He has years of experience in resolving disputes in class-action tort cases, having overseen a program for Agent Orange litigation after the Vietnam War.

He also serves as an arbitrator for the allocation of legal fees in Holocaust slave labor litigation.

Feinberg continues to oversee such difficult issues as how people should apply for compensation and whether the program should pay for victims’ lawyers.

The job has affected Feinberg’s personal life as well. On most days he is up at 5:30 a.m., giving dictation. As a result, says Feinberg’s wife, Didi, her “part-rabbi, part-shrink” husband rarely stays up past 9:30 p.m.

Feinberg questions the congressional instructions to base awards on a victim’s former earning potential.

“There’s a problem in valuing life based on economic wherewithal,” he said.

Under a special track, victims’ relatives can meet with Feinberg to describe special circumstances for the compensation formula.

“But how do you adjust awards fairly?” he asked.

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