Lawyer honored for 9/11 fund work
The 24-year-old widow sat before Ken Feinberg in tears.
Her husband had died in the World Trade Center attack, leaving her a widow with a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old. She needed the money promised her by the federal government now, she told him. Just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had eight weeks to live.
"We expedited the process and got her the money," Feinberg, 60, a lawyer, said Sunday. "And seven weeks later, we went to her funeral."
For this, and the three years' worth of work he put in for free while designing, implementing and administering the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, Feinberg today receives the Allegheny County Bar Foundation's first Presidential Award of Merit. At 3 p.m., he will give a public lecture, "What is Life Worth," at the Duquesne Law School.
"We recognize him as one of a kind," said Ken Gormley, a professor at Duquesne Law School and incoming president of the Allegheny County Bar Association. "He has a record of excellent public service that serves as an inspiration for the type of pro bono work we want to do here and for the fellows at the bar foundation."
David Blaner, executive director of the county bar association and foundation, said attorneys have a professional duty to reach out to the less fortunate. Although lawyers working through the foundation argued 2,800 pro bono cases in 2005, Blaner estimated that help met only 25 percent of the need.
"This gentleman is a model for what we hope to accomplish," Blaner said.
Feinberg said he was honored to accept the award.
Lawyers in Pittsburgh represented people from across the country for the compensation fund, Feinberg said.
"I'm going back to Pittsburgh to thank them for their help in administering the fund," he said.
Feinberg, managing partner and founder of the Feinberg Group LLC in Washington, arbitrated other high-profile cases, such as the fair market value of the Zapruder film showing President John F. Kennedy's assassination and allocating legal fees in the Holocaust slave labor cases.
He was appointed by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft shortly after the attacks to mediate between the government and the victims.
It was not an easy task.
The fund was set up so that families got varying amounts of money, based on a variety of factors.
"That was a real problem because it created divisiveness among the recipients," he said. "What I tried to do was exercise the discretion I had to narrow the difference."
That included allowing victims and their families the chance to speak their minds in more than 2,300 personal sessions, including 1,500 conducted by Feinberg himself. There, victims had the chance to question the amount of their award, plead for more money or simply vent about the unfairness of the situation, Feinberg said.
By the time Feinberg finished in 2004, the fund had distributed $7 billion to 2,983 families of the dead and an additional 2,300 people injured in the attacks.
More than 97 percent of the eligible families received a payment, averaging $2 million for a death and $400,000 for injury.
Feinberg did not seek or receive payment for his role.
"It didn't feel appropriate," he said, noting that Americans donated more than $2 billion to various charities in the wake of the attacks.