Justice Department announces terms of terrorist victims compensation fund

WASHINGTON -- Families of victims of the terrorist attacks would receive an average of $1.65 million under a federal aid program unveiled Thursday. The Justice Department will begin taking claims Friday and the first partial checks could be issued before New Year's.

At a news conference, Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer in charge of the fund, said it was "an unprecedented display of taxpayers' generosity."

But he told The Associated Press later that he doubted it would satisfy victims' families.

"They are just so caught up in the horror of what they've gone through that I think they have different expectations," said Feinberg, who said he has met with hundreds of victims' relatives.

Joseph Maurer, whose 31-year-old daughter, Jill Campbell, was killed at the World Trade Center, said he is more concerned about a fitting memorial and the search for bodies than about money.

But he also thought of her 1-year-old daughter. "I would like to see that she has no problems in her life and will be able to go to school," said Maurer, a retired firefighter from Brooklyn, N.Y., who also lost a dozen firefighter friends.

The compensation relatives receive would depend largely on the victim's family size, age and earnings. The survivors of a low-income 60-year bachelor may receive $300,000 while those of a wealthy, 35-year-old executive with two children could receive $3.8 million.

Life insurance and pension fund payments would be subtracted from the awards, but not charitable contributions.

Nikki Stern, whose husband, James E. Potorti, was killed at the World Trade Center, said government's figures are misleading because of those deductions.

"I am very concerned that the number that has been released has been misrepresented," she said.

Mark Morabito of Auburn, N.Y., whose wife, Laura Lee, was killed in the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower, said life insurance shouldn't be a factor.

"Why should people be penalized for planning for their future?" he said.

Relatives who take the money would also largely give up their right to sue. Some may decline the federal money to pursue cases in court.

A woman whose husband died aboard one of the jetliners that slammed into the World Trade Center filed the first lawsuit against an airline over the Sept. 11 attacks Thursday, contending negligence on the part of United led to the hijacking.

Those seriously injured are also eligible for compensation based on the severity of their injuries.

Congress on Thursday also moved to waive income taxes and provide payroll tax relief to the families of victims of the attacks. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., said the tax relief would provide a bridge for families between the receiving of charitable donations and waiting for help from the federal aid program.

The fund was set up in September as part of the $15 billion airline bailout bill. Feinberg said he expects victims will receive a total of $6 billion with $4.8 billion coming from the federal government and $1.2 billion from other sources, such as insurance.

More than 3,000 people were killed in the attacks at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the plane crash in Pennsylvania.

Feinberg said the payment plan was developed after meetings with victims' families, lawyers and charitable groups. His biggest concerns were to make it fair, get awards to families quickly and avoid enormous differences between the wealthiest and poorest recipients.

Those filing claims can receive advance payments of $50,000, or $25,000 for injured victims. Feinberg said that in cases where there is no doubt about who is entitled to the payments, the first checks could be issued within days after an application is submitted.

"We do not want to drag our feet with red tape and bureaucracy," Feinberg said.

He said he hopes every claim can be paid in full within months. But payments cannot be made until it is determined who is entitled to the money -- something that will depend on the laws of the states where the victims lived. Those laws will also determine whether same-sex partners are eligible for compensation.

While the size of payments depends largely on the victims' salary and earnings potential, the fund doesn't plan excessive payments for the families of victims who were in the top 2 percent of all wage earners. That means the family of someone who had a $1 million a year salary wouldn't get more than the family of someone earning $240,000.

Feinberg said charitable payments weren't included in the payment formula after some charities threatened to delay their payments to victims' families if it were a consideration.

Feinberg said that in determining victim payments, he will not try to distinguish between different levels of grief among the survivors.

He spoke of meetings where some victims' relatives claimed they suffered more than others because of how their spouses died or how long they were married.

"I will not play Solomon," he said. "I cannot make those distinctions and I will not make those distinctions. Every life is valuable."


On the Net:

Victims Compensation Fund: http://www.usdoj.gov/victimcompensation


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