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Meet the man who has made a career putting a price on tragedy

In this Oct. 27, 2009 file photo, Special Master for Executive Compensation Ken Feinberg, also known as the Treasury Department's "pay czar," speaks during a discussion at Georgetown Law Center in Washington.

Charles Dharapak/AP

When calamity strikes, first there is shock and horror and grief. Then there is a phone call to Kenneth Feinberg.

It came after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It came after the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., in Newtown, Conn., and at Virginia Tech. And it came after the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

What reads like a list of some of the nation's worst moments also represents a chunk of a unique resumé. A Massachusetts native now based in Washington, D.C., Mr. Feinberg is the master of a bleak specialty: putting prices on pain and getting victims and their families to agree to those calculations.

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On July 1, Mr. Feinberg will complete his latest grim task: sending out more than $50-million (U.S.) to the victims of the Boston attack and their families. The lightning-fast turnaround illustrates his preferred way of working – establish a hierarchy of harm, allocate funds in a transparent manner and distribute the money with dispatch.

Days after the April 15 attack, which killed three people and injured almost 200, Mr. Feinberg received a call from an aide to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, asking him to help design and administer a compensation fund.

To distribute such funds requires someone who can be part lawyer, part therapist and part human pinata.

"You're dealing with people in grief," Mr. Feinberg, 67, said in a recent interview. "Do not expect gratitude. Do not expect resignation. Expect anger, frustration, disappointment – it goes with the territory."

Mr. Feinberg grew up south of the city and still speaks with a Boston accent ("Hah-vad" is how he pronounces the name of the most famous university in town). He immediately said yes to the mayor's request and offered to do the task without payment, as he has done in similar situations in the past.

Since the attack, The One Fund Boston has received $56-million in donations, far outstripping other tragedies; by way of comparison, $7-million was raised for the victims and their families after the shooting at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed by a gunman, and $11-million was raised in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, where a gunman killed 27 people.

"In my lifetime and in all my experience, I have never seen such a massive outpouring of private support for a fund," Mr. Feinberg said of the Boston effort. He attributed the result to the way Massachusetts politicians urged the public to make contributions, but also to the response from deep-pocketed businesses headquartered in the city.

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He sees his job as getting the funds distributed in a way that does the greatest good for the greatest number of people, a process based on judgment and experience.

"Speed is the most important," said Mr. Feinberg, whose baritone voice and dramatic delivery hint at the fact that he long ago considered a career in acting. "All the words in the world are no substitute for getting the money out and getting it out fast."

In the Boston case, that meant abandoning the idea of tailoring awards to specific financial circumstances. "I'm not prepared to tell an individual who is a double amputee, 'I'm ready to give you millions, but first send me your insurance, send me your tax return,'" he said.

By contrast, the situation that followed the December, 2012, massacre in Newtown is a "sad example of delay," he said. There was a dispute about how much of the $11-million raised in the main relief fund would go directly to the families most affected. The plan now is to reserve $7.7-million for the families, while the rest will assist the larger community. Mr. Feinberg plans to go to Newtown in July to begin discussing how to distribute the funds with the families.

"He has the unique ability to get people to trust him," said John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University. "They're not always going to love him, but they feel like they've dealt with a man who was trustworthy."

The son of a tire salesman, Mr. Feinberg briefly considered a career in the theatre but became a lawyer instead, developing a reputation for mediating thorny disputes. In 1984, a federal judge asked him to mediate a long-running clash between the maker of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War, and 250,000 veterans and their families. Weeks later, he brokered a settlement – and earned a hefty fee in the process.

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It was his work on the 9/11 fund – an unprecedented exercise involving the distribution of more than $7-billion in taxpayer money – that cemented his reputation. At first criticized as aloof and arrogant, he managed to win over some of his harshest critics among the victims' families. He invited those affected to speak at private hearings, listening to more than 1,500 such proceedings himself.

More recently he was tapped to serve as what has come to be called the first "pay czar" at the U.S. Treasury Department, where he capped salaries for executives at the firms that received massive assistance from the government during the financial crisis. It was an eye-opening experience.

"These folks don't measure their self-worth by family, community, religion," but by their compensation, Mr. Feinberg said. In that context, a pay cut is viewed as "a personal attack on their integrity."

Accustomed to acting as a lightning rod, Mr. Feinberg took on yet another high-profile fund in 2010, distributing more than $6-billion from BP to those affected by the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

"I don't have a patent on this," he said. "If a time comes when I do one of these unsuccessfully, that will be the end of my career as a designer and administrator of these programs. You're only as good as your last effort."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year of the Sept. 11 attacks as 2011 instead of 2001. This version has been corrected.

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