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BP Executive Says Company Will Pay Claims

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Tallahassee, FL – A BP executive Wednesday heard complaints from Panhandle residents having trouble getting their claims paid, but says the company is standing behind its commitment to those damaged by the oil spill in the Gulf. Margie Menzel reports.

"There really is a cloud, a psychological cloud, hanging over the Panhandle," said Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon, chairman of the claims working group of the state Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force. "And frankly, that's beginning to affect everyone in Florida."

The panel heard from BP vice president Darryl Willis, who said the company had thus far paid 38,000 claims totaling $123 million. He described the transition now underway from BP's paying the claims itself to President Obama's recent appointment of Ken Feinberg, the so-called pay czar, to oversee the process. Feinberg performed a similar function after the September 11 attacks, and Willis emphasized his commitment to speed, transparency and consistency. The latter, Willis acknowledged, had been lacking.

"If you go to an office in Apalachicola, you might hear something that's different from an office in Port St. Joe," he said. "That's unacceptable, and Mr. Feinberg is insistent that we have a process where the messages are clear, they're crisp and they're consistent from office to office, around how you file a claim, around how you get an appointment, and around how you get paid."

Indeed, public testimony included complaints of repeated mistakes and delays, especially in payments to larger businesses. Jeff Taggart is part-owner of the Pensacola Beach Marina, where, he says, business came to a standstill a month ago. He expects to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars and has thus far collected $10,000 from BP.

"Two days ago, our adjustors told my professional adjustor to go down to Louisiana and pick up a check yesterday for $20-25,000, that it would be ready," Taggart told the panel "He made the trip, went down there, and they said, "No, we don't have the check, but it'll be coming from Delaware in 7-10 days." I'm not sleeping, I'm doing this all the time - and let me tell you, my primary goal in this is to clean up the oil spill and to keep it off our beaches, keep it out of our fisheries. I don't like this at all."

Willis responded to the suggestions and complaints.

"It's far from perfect, but we're going to stick with it and keep working it until it's handed over, with the intent of making sure that we do everything we can, every single day we're still involved in this process, to make sure that no business goes out of business as a result of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and no person who's affected misses a house payment, a boat payment, a car payment or electric bill payment," Willis said.

At the end of the day, Work Group Chair Sheldon said he was satisfied.

"There's frustration and anger out there, but I've got to be honest: your presentation has raised a comfort level that I have, because I think you have articulated information that you have and can provide, and I think you've also been direct about those things that may be more difficult," said Sheldon.

But Monroe County Commissioner Martin DiGennaro, another panel member, took a longer and darker view.

"The anger, the aggression that's out there right now - I believe it's going to continue until they finally stop the oil leak," DiGennaro said. "That's where we'll start to see a downtick. Until then, the confusion, the uncertainty that's out there - it's with everyone. We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Willis assured the panel and the public that he would pass on their problems and suggestions to Feinberg, who controls $20 billion in escrow for claims. Willis said BP will replenish those funds until all legitimate claims are settled.