Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that Mr. Feinberg’s appointment showed the administration’s commitment to reform. “He showed a great deal of skill with the much more emotional subject after 9/11,” Mr. Frank said.
Before that assignment, he was appointed by federal district judges to help resolve several difficult product liability lawsuits. He played central roles in resolving cases involving victims of asbestos, Agent Orange and the Dalkon shield, a birth control device that injured more than 200,000 women.
Mr. Feinberg, who was formerly chief of staff for Senator Edward M. Kennedy and was considered for the post of White House counsel in the Clinton administration, was also one of three arbitrators who determined the fair market value of the Zapruder film that captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He resolved a dispute between the heirs of Abraham Zapruder, who shot the footage, and the government, which acquired the 26-second film.
“In what may be one of his more controversial roles as the administration’s compensation official, Mr. Feinberg has the authority to ask any company that received money from the asset relief program to reimburse the government for salaries deemed excessive while they were on taxpayer support.
He did not clarify whether he would pursue companies that had returned taxpayer money — including JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, which paid off the government this week — saying only that he would actively review compensation handed out for 2008 at companies still on taxpayer support.
Laura Thatcher, the head of the executive compensation practice at Alston & Bird, said that his role raised serious questions about government interference in compensation in the private sector.
“It’s a very unusual thing to turn over the setting of pay to a third party,” she said, adding that state law gives only boards direct authority over compensation.
Still, Ms. Thatcher said she thought it would be unlikely that companies would challenge the government.
“I think the real challenge here,” Mr. Feinberg said, “is going to be balancing the populist sentiment which says the taxpayers should not be subsidizing compensation for these TARP recipient companies versus the historical view in this country that government had best stay out of managing compensation at private companies.”
Mr. Feinberg said he would differentiate among compensation plans at industrial companies like General Motors and financial companies like Citigroup, and said he would not look for a “one-size-fits-all approach.”