Noted mediator will be in KC to meet with Teamsters in huge pension fight

Kenneth Feinberg
Kenneth Feinberg

Kenneth Feinberg, the notable mediator, has distributed billions of dollars to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, cars with defective ignitions, the gulf oil spill and many other events.

He is coming to Kansas City on Tuesday with the power to take billions away.

Feinberg is on an assignment from the U.S. Treasury. His job is to weigh a controversial proposal to save the shaky Central States Pension Fund. The fund’s own plan would cut the pension checks of thousands of retirees, many by half or more, through they have been living on those checks for years.

Tuesday’s session in Kansas City will bring Feinberg together with those retired Teamsters whose monthly checks are in jeopardy.

“I give them an opportunity to be heard,” Feinberg said of his town halls, of which Kansas City’s will be the eighth and last.

The proposed pension cuts are possible under a 2014 law that Feinberg and retired Teamsters alike say was passed quietly.

“This law was enacted with very little publicity, very little in the way of hearings or public sunlight,” Feinberg said in an interview Thursday.

Wes Epperson, with a local group fighting the pension’s proposed cuts, said Feinberg has given his audiences the floor in other cities.

“He basically listens. He’s providing a forum for people to voice their opinions,” Epperson said.

Turnout has been strong, with a few hundred in many markets and 700 or more at sessions in Detroit and Minneapolis.

Still more retirees and others who are covered by the Central States Pension Fund have talked to Feinberg on weekly conference calls or sent him their stories by email.

Feinberg said retirees in other cities have described the hardships they would face. Pleas have been passionate, but he said the sessions have remained respectful.

In Kansas City, retirees have received letters from the pension showing their monthly checks will be cut 50 percent and more. Over a lifetime, one retiree’s loss can reach $200,000.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who helped set up the Feinberg meeting in Kansas City, has estimated the proposed cuts would cost Missouri retirees $3 billion.

In an emailed statement, Cleaver said he has received letters and “privacy waivers” from many of those facing cuts and is working to find an different solution.

“I will be sending a letter to the Department of Justice to request a formal investigation into the management of the Central States Pension Fund that led to this situation to determine if there was any fraudulent or mishandling of funds that would result in criminal penalties and or fines,” Cleaver said.

The pension fund covers 400,000 people, including 220,000 retirees, across 37 states. It has said that it has been paying $3.46 in benefits for every dollar it takes in through employer contributions.

Apart from universal opposition, retirees and others have raised three major complaints, Feinberg said.

They tell him that the pension cuts won’t save the Central States Pension Fund, which itself estimates only a 50.4 percent chance its plan would keep the fund alive.

They also tell him the proposed cuts are inequitable, leaving some checks untouched while cutting others by 20, 40 or 60 percent.

Those covered by the plan will be able to vote on the proposal, but Feinberg said retirees have objected to how the vote will be handled. He said the law provides that any retiree ballot not returned will be counted in favor of the plan. The vote does not by itself determine the plan’s fate.

Seven sessions so far have made an impression.

“You can’t help but empathize with those personal stories,” Feinberg said.

“Now I do explain at every one of these town halls, you’ll hear it next Tuesday, there’s a law here that I’ve got to follow. I’ve got to enforce the law.”

By May, Feinberg said he will decide whether to accept the Central States proposal, reject it or send it back to the pension with recommended changes.

Ultimately, the power to act belongs to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. Feinberg, however, said he is “fully confident” that Lew will ratify his decision.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar

Public session on Central States Pension Fund

4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Ballroom 2501 CD

Kansas City Convention Center

301 W. 13th St.

Kansas City