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Adrian Walker

Ken Feinberg’s ‘rough justice’ for Marathon victims

In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack, Ken Feinberg assumed a familiar but utterly thankless task: overseeing financial compensation for hundreds of victims of the bombings on Boylston Street.

Among his duties as administrator of One Fund Boston was meeting with many victims and their families to explain his work. A visit to a Boston hospital room summed up just how emotionally wrenching the job was going to be.

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The patient — a man who had his leg amputated — had his young son balanced on his chest, while his parents and brother surrounded his bed. Feinberg told him he was soon to receive a check for $1,125,000 for his injuries.

“I have a better idea, Mr. Feinberg,” the man told him. “Why don’t you keep your money and give me back my leg?”

Feinberg seems to shudder as he relates the incident. “I told him, ‘I wish I could do that, but I don’t have that authority. All I can offer is limited financial relief.’ ”

Since the attacks of 9/11, Feinberg has become the go-to person for addressing wounds that no amount of money can heal. Before the Boston Marathon bombings, he had administered funds for victims of 9/11, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the British Petroleum oil spill, among others.

So he was the obvious choice when Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick organized a fund following the Marathon attack. Feinberg agreed immediately to help out because it’s what he does and because, as a Massachusetts native, the bombing immediately struck home.

Feinberg is proud of his roots — he’s Brockton High ’63 and UMass Amherst ’67 — and says turning down the chance to help would have been unthinkable.

“What are you going to do, say ‘no’ to Mayor Menino?” he said. “You can’t help but reflect on . . . the fact that this took place in a neighborhood you’re very, very familiar with,” he said. “But you try not to let that overwhelm you emotionally. I was assigned a task and tried to do it.”

He worked out a formula for compensating victims that was mostly based on the length of their hospital stays. Later, outpatients were included as well. There was also a sliding scale based on severity of injuries. One Fund Boston eventually awarded $61 million in just 60 days.

“My job was to get money quickly to people who desperately needed it,” Feinberg explained.

To the dismay of some, Feinberg was not inclined to base his compensation calculations on detailed medical records or such factors as lost income; doing so, he believed, would have slowed the process to a crawl while creating needless overhead.

“Rather than look at each individual injury, rather than try to get a medical evaluation of seriousness — that will take too long and cost too much, it will promote uncertainty and divisiveness,” he explained. More efficient, he said, to follow a philosophy of “rough justice.”

By definition, doling out money for injuries is emotionally charged work. Doing it for free hasn’t always insulated Feinberg from criticism, though there has been remarkably little complaint about his work spending down the wildly successful One Fund. He believes the funds have helped thousands of people begin to heal without unnecessary financial stress, and that the public — most of it, anyway — accepts that no such program will be flawless.

What motivates Feinberg to take on such difficult assignments? He says he was inspired by John F. Kennedy, who was elected president when Feinberg was a teenager.

“He asked each of us to give back to the country, that we’re here to help each other,” he said. “I believe that and it drives me.”

For his efforts on behalf of One Fund Boston, Feinberg is receiving an honorary degree from Emmanuel College later this spring. He’s relishing the chance to urge graduates to contribute to the public good.

“I’m a big believer in the communitarian effort,” he said. “Give back to your community.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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