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BP puts its trust in Washington U law dean

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2010 - Kent D. Syverud, dean of the Washington University School of Law, has been appointed as one of two independent trustees of the $20 billion Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust fund established by BP to settle claims for damages from the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In an interview with the Beacon Monday, Syverud said he understands the importance of the position.

“It is a public responsibility, and I care about it and understand the importance of it,’’ he said. “I will do my best.’’

Syverud and John S. Martin Jr., a retired federal judge for the Southern District of New York, were named by BP to administer the account, the company announced Monday. BP also said that it has made a $3 billion initial deposit into the escrow account set up to pay claims arising from the aftermath of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers. Until the well was capped in mid-July, an estimated 5 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf -- the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

Syverud called Martin “an extraordinarily capable” co-trustee who has experience in handling claims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The trustees will serve as stewards of the fund but will not adjudicate individual claims arising out of the oil spill. That is the responsibility of Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, Syverud said.

“The trust is a device to capture and make independent -- of both BP and the federal government -- the $20 billion set aside. To make sure that money is available and is appropriately paid out in accordance with the settlement of claims by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility,” he said.

Syverud, who spent Monday afternoon fielding questions from the news media, said he isn’t sure how his name came up for the position.

“I’m getting a lot of questions that are basically ‘Why you?’ ’’ Syverud said.

He acknowledged, though, that he has trained many lawyers over many years at three law schools -- the University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University and Washington University -- in complex litigation, insurance law and business law, so his name is known in legal circles.

Syverud’s independence of the various parties involved in establishing the trust may have also played a factor.

“The various sides involved in the trust creation and in approving its terms, including the White House and BP, had trust in me,’’ he said.

Syverud said that he has been in discussions about the position for the past week. He expects the job will take a significant amount of time initially but is not a full-time position.

Syverud, the Ethan A. H. Shepley University professor at Washington University, also serves as associate vice chancellor of the university’s Washington programs. Syverud was named dean of the law school in April 2005.

Before joining the Washington University faculty, Syverud served as dean of the Vanderbilt Law School from 1997 to June 2005 and taught at the University of Michigan Law School from 1987-1997. Syverud also practiced law at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C., and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Syverud, a former president of the Southeastern Association of Law Schools, said he knows the Gulf Coast well. He said that he understands that the spill has been a traumatic experience for many residents of the area, but that his job is to ensure that the trust fund is responsibly administered for the benefit of those with legitimate claims.

In a news release, Chancellor Mark Wrighton praised Syverud and noted the importance of the appointment.

"It is a great honor for both Kent Syverud and the Washington University School of Law for him to be named to this role -- a critical component of the recovery and restoration efforts for the communities and people so deeply affected by the oil spill in the Gulf,” Wrighton said in the statement. “I am confident that Kent will be a valuable resource to the team, and I am pleased with his willingness to take on this important responsibility.”

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.