Some of the biggest jobs that Kenneth R. Feinberg has handled are best described as grim. The Washington lawyer served as the special master of the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which distributed nearly $7 billion to more than 5,000 victims and families of victims of 9/11. Three years later, he agreed to administrate the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, set up for the benefit of victims' families in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting. In his latest high-profile role, as the Obama-appointed executive-pay czar, Feinberg announced Oct. 21 that the Treasury Department will slash compensation for the 25 highest-paid executives at the seven firms that received the largest chunks of federal bailout money: Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG, General Motors, Chrysler and the financing arms of the two automakers. Salaries are expected to shrink 50% on average, with the majority falling below $500,000, though firms that have already repaid their bailout debts, like JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, are not affected by the change. (See the 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)
Born Oct. 23, 1945, in Brockton, Mass., Feinberg, now 63, earned a degree in history from the University of Massachusetts, where he became involved in theater and briefly considered a career as an actor. Instead, he decided to pursue a law degree at NYU, where he served as articles editor of the Law Review.
After clerking for New York State Court of Appeals Judge Stanley Fuld, Feinberg became an assistant attorney for the New York department of justice where he worked alongside former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey before joining Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy's office as an assistant. He became Kennedy's chief of staff in the late 1970s.
Left Kennedy's office in 1980 to help found the Washington office of law firm Kaye Scholer LLP. After 12 years, he started his own firm, the Feinberg Group (now Feinberg Rozen LLP).
As a mediator, Feinberg helped resolve a string of high-profile cases, including some of the nation's biggest asbestos-damages suits, a $2.5 billion settlement for women suing over a defective contraceptive device, and a class action by 250,000 Vietnam veterans and their families against the manufacturers of Agent Orange. Though the Agent Orange case had been dragging on for more than eight years, Feinberg after just six weeks on the job was able to reach a $180 million settlement between the toxic defoliant's manufacturers and its victims. Some critics noted, however, that although veterans sometimes waited years for their payouts, Feinberg earned an immediate $800,000 for his work.
Working pro bono as head of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, Feinberg reached out to all who qualified to file a claim, evaluated applications, determined appropriate compensation and distributed awards. He personally took part in most of the 1,500 hearings with survivors and victims' families, and his staff of 200 spent 33 months investigating claims and deciding benefits. In 2005, Feinberg published a book, What Is Life Worth?, in which he recounted his experiences.
He was one of three arbitrators who in 1999 determined the fair market value of the Zapruder film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In 2004 the National Law Journal named him "Lawyer of the Year." He is married with three adult children. He enjoys opera, classical music and cigars.
"When I was 9 years old, I saw Groucho Marx in A Night at the Opera. I was hooked for life." Describing how he first developed an interest in opera and classical music (New York Times, Dec. 11, 2001)
"It's a brutal, sort of cold thing to do. Anybody who looks at this program and expects that by cutting a U.S. Treasury check you are going to make 9/11 families happy is vastly misunderstanding what's going on with this program." Just three days before the application deadline for victims and families of victims to file a claim to the 9/11 compensation fund (ABC News, Dec. 19, 2003)
"It is very, very exciting, challenging, to help people resolve the cases instead of fighting all the time." Describing his mediation work on cases like the Agent Orange class action (Boston Globe, Feb. 1, 2004)
"People should read some e-mails I received during the 9/11-fund work. 'Dear Mr. Feinberg: My son died in Oklahoma City. Where's my check?' ... How do you carve out the very special, generous use of public taxpayer money for just a small group of victims of life's misfortune?" Explaining the turmoil he felt over having to turn down victims and families of victims of other tragedies because "the public-policy response to the 9/11 tragedy is unique to an unprecedented historical event" (The Washingtonian, March 1, 2008)
"Don't ask one person to act like Solomon and try to calculate the value of lives. To be judge, jury, accountant, lawyer, rabbi, etc., is very, very difficult." Arguing that Congress should try a different method of disseminating compensation funds in the event of another such terrorist disaster (The Washingtonian, March 1, 2008)
"His natural talent is cutting a deal that everybody can live with." John C. Coffee Jr., a law professor at Columbia University, where Feinberg once taught (New York Times, Dec. 11, 2001)
"9/11 is going to be with us as long as history is written. The extraordinary suffering these families experienced will be with us. When people think about that, they are going to think about who was it that helped and assisted them through it, and Ken Feinberg will be forever associated with at least being part of the process." Senator Ted Kennedy (Boston Globe, Feb. 1, 2004)
"He was a little, you know, serious. You're 25, living in New York, going to parties, and here's this guy who does operas and lectures." Feinberg's wife Diane Shiff, on her first impression of her future husband (Boston Globe, Feb. 1, 2004)
"We all share an interest in seeing these companies return taxpayer dollars as soon as possible, and Ken today has helped bring that day a little bit closer." Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, in a statement about Feinberg's rulings on executive pay (Reuters, Oct. 22, 2009)