Nationally recognized mediator Kenneth Feinberg won't handle the politically delicate claims by Maricopa County officials against the county after all.
Feinberg tells us this morning that the plan to have him mediate the claims "never got beyond the discussion phase. We never finalized anything."
Nor was he paid anything, he added.
In June, the five-member county Board of Supervisors approved a resolution on a 3-0 vote to hire the Washington D.C. lawyer to handle a resolution process for the nearly $50 million in claims. He and his firm were to be paid $50,000 initially and up to $500,000 for the work.
Just before the June vote, Feinberg -- popularized as the best in his field -- agreed to handle the plethora of claims related to BP's oil disaster in the Gulf. As news articles recount daily, that job has grown to epic proportions, with more than 200,000 claims filed.
Yet the loss of Feinberg puts Maricopa officials in a bind.
Officials needed him to bolster public confidence in an unprecedented situation in which county officials appear to be preparing to pay themselves tens of millions of dollars in claims.
Supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox abstained from voting on the Feinberg issue in June. They've put in claims against the county for a total of $14.75 million because of alleged (and, frankly, well-documented), abuse by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas. To complicate matters further, a criminal investigation into alleged misdeeds by Stapley and Wilcox is still under review by the Gila County Attorney's Office.
Supervisor Andy Kunasek, who was publicly -- and wrongly -- accused theft of county funds by Arpaio's chief deputy, Dave Hendershott (who's now under investigation himself), hasn't ruled out filing a claim. Other claimants include county bureaucrats, current and retired judges, lawyers and a fat-cat developer once convicted of bank fraud, Conley Wolfswinkel.
In a June news release, county officials noted that:
By recruiting a well respected arbitrator in Feinberg, county officials also hope to avoid the conflict of interest inherent when the potential claimants are the same people who would typically be in charge of resolving the claims.
"A key issue is developing a process that will allow resolution of these claims in a manner that the public can trust," County Manager David Smith wrote in a memo Tuesday to the supervisors. "Maricopa County could institute a process that is competent and conflict free."
No one has the built-in respect of Feinberg, who's Obama's "pay czar," the former 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund mediator, and the arbiter of claims in one of the biggest environmental claims in history.
Who will they get now?
We inquired with the county yesterday afternoon. We'll let you know when we hear back.