NEW ORLEANS - President Barack Obama vowed during a White House speech last June that the $20 billion he helped coax out of BP for an oil spill compensation fund would take care of victims "as quickly, as fairly and as transparently as possible." Eight months later, that's not how things look to many people along the Gulf Coast.
Tens of thousands of fishermen, oyster shuckers, business owners, hotel operators and hairdressers still await payment. Many others whose claims have been turned down question the evenhandedness. And without the data to determine who is right, attorneys general and members of Congress question the openness.
An Associated Press review, including interviews with legal experts, government officials and more than 300 Gulf residents, found a process beset by red tape.
The dissatisfaction has reached a fever pitch: Lawmakers in Washington are demanding the White House step in, the Louisiana governor and others want a federal judge to intervene, and the people most affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster are threatening to line the courthouse steps if they don't get changes from administrator Kenneth Feinberg.
Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who runs the fund and was lauded for his work overseeing the compensation fund for 9/11 victims, has insisted he is being fair. He has acknowledged that the system is clogged by the sheer volume of oil spill claims, along with inflated or outlandish requests.
One person filed a claim for the entire $20 billion, while another asked for $10 billion; a boat captain sought reimbursement for lost income for himself and four deckhands, but it turned out he didn't have any deckhands; and a fisherman claimed he lost a month on the water, but his boat had a hole in it and was dry-docked even before the spill.
Feinberg recently said he believes the Gulf of Mexico should largely recover from BP's oil spill by the end of next year, and he doesn't think the entire $20 billion will be needed to compensate victims. Only half of that should suffice, he said.
So far, nearly 490,000 claims have been filed, and roughly half have been turned down. The fund has handed out $3.4 billion to 169,000 claimants. Nearly all the money dispensed so far has been in the form of either emergency payments for short-term losses or one-time checks handed out in exchange for a promise not to sue.