NEW ORLEANS - A law professor being paid $950 an hour with BP's money has declared that the czar of the $20 billion claims fund for victims of the gulf oil spill is independent of the oil company.
Fund administrator Ken Feinberg said Thursday that he has agreed to pay New York University professor Stephen Gillers for his advice. Since being hired, Gillers has written a letter stating that Feinberg is neutral and not subject to BP's direction or control.
Feinberg said the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, created to administer payments from the fund to people and businesses, is billing BP for Gillers' services.
Some victims, lawyers, and state officials unhappy with the claims process have questioned Feinberg's independence and suggested he is a pawn in a BP effort to limit its liability.
A statement Thursday from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility said Feinberg asked Gillers for advice about a Nov. 24 letter from Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell questioning the independence of the fund and Feinberg's role as the independent administrator.
In a letter to Feinberg, Gillers wrote: "You are not in an attorney-client relationship with BP. You are an independent administrator and owe none of the attributes of the attorney-client relationship (e.g., loyalty, confidentiality) to BP. By 'independent' I mean (and I think the context is clear) that you are independent of BP. You are not subject to its direction or control."
The total amount Gillers will be paid is unclear. He told the Associated Press he was billing $950 an hour for his services and an assistant was billing $475 an hour. Gillers said he and the assistant have not calculated how many hours they spent on the work, which Gillers said was now finished.
GCCF spokeswoman Debra DeShong Reed said that neither Feinberg nor the fund had any past relationship with Gillers. She said he was chosen because he was a nationally recognized expert in the field of legal ethics.
Gillers said his work for Feinberg included reading the letter Caldwell sent Feinberg, reading court papers filed by lawyers suing BP, and researching rules governing lawyers in Gulf Coast states and in Washington, where Feinberg's law firm is located.
Both Gillers and Feinberg said they did not believe there was anything wrong with using BP money to pay for the advice.
"Is he being paid by BP money? Yes," Feinberg said. "Who else is going to pay for the entire cost of this program? You can't ask claimants to pay, you can't ask states and federal governments to pay. The buck stops with BP, and BP has agreed to pay the entire cost of the infrastructure of this program."