Aurora theater shooting: Ken Feinberg named special master of victims fund

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In a very brief press conference at the State Capitol announced less than an hour before it began, Governor John Hickenlooper introduced Ken Feinberg as the new "special master" for the Aurora Victim Relief Fund -- almost a full month after victims' families first came together to express their frustrations with the disbursement of donations. The late afternoon event marks the first major public response from the governor and other officials behind the funds -- and Feinberg, who has a background in this kind of work, says he hopes to speed up the process.

Back in August, the families of nearly all twelve fatal victims of the Aurora theater shooting came together for their first joint public appearance to say they have had no strong voice in how donations will be distributed and that an associated nonprofit group, Community First Foundation, had not been transparent in its decisions.

The complaints continued for weeks with the families holding a second press conference last week, criticizing the 7/20 Recovery Committee, an ad hoc group of mostly Aurora officials charged with deciding how to give out more than $5 million to the families of the deceased and the dozens more injured on July 20.

Feinberg, who was in Colorado today and spoke at the press conference, has extensive experience in the disbursement of relief funds created after high-profile tragedies and disasters. Notably, he was the special master of the Federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund back in 2001 and also played a role in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings and the BP oil spill.

"I'll be working over the next few days and weeks not only with the governor and his staff and with foundation representatives," Feinberg said, "but most importantly, I'll also be eager to hear from the victims, what there concerns are, what their complaints are. But I must say what's vitally important -- and this is what the governor emphasized to me -- is the necessity of getting this money out to those in need who have suffered terrible, terrible loss."

He continued, "Why am I doing this? First, you don't say no to the governor...But secondly, I think I'm doing what millions of Americans would do if asked. I've had some experience doing this...This is not rocket science. This is trying to take a limited pot of money, distribute it as soon as you can, as quickly as you can, to eligible people in sore need of these funds."

Hickenlooper, who has faced criticism from the families for not taking the lead on this and helping the families receive needed donations, started his speech by praising the efforts of Community First and those working on the 7/20 Committee. He said he spoke to Feinberg recently and asked for his help, and he emphasized that Feinberg is not being paid in any way to take on this role.

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"He is completely without self-interest, but doing this as a patriot in the purest way," said Hickenlooper, who stood beside Marla Williams, the president of Community First Foundation and 7/20 Recovery Committee Special Advisor Rich Audsley, who both also spoke at the fifteen-minute news conference.

"When [Feinberg] and I talked earlier this week...one of the things that impressed me so much was he had a great sense of urgency," Hickenlooper said.

In the weeks and months since the shooting, the families have expressed frustrations that there have been no clear timelines for disbursements to be decided and doled out -- especially when some of the injured were physically suffering and had immediate health needs.

When asked about the timing going forward, Feinberg said he wants "speed without restriction," in a transparent process where the victims have a say. He said he'll be working over the next days and weeks to start resolving this.

A reporter asked Feinberg how this situation might be different from his experience with past tragedy funds, when he received backlash from victims' families.

It won't be different, Feinberg says.

"I fully expect that there will be heat. There will be criticism," he said. "There will be anger and frustration. How can't there be that? These families, these individuals horribly injured did nothing wrong. They were trying to enjoy an evening out at the movies, and anybody who expects that there won't be that kind of frustration and anger -- just like BP, just like 9/11, just like Virginia Tech -- I expect it and it sort of goes with the territory."

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "James Holmes: Strange new mug shot, ten new counts -- and five more victims?"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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