Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibility"She believes in transparency," new Fire Victim Trust trustee sparks optimism for payments | KRCR
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"She believes in transparency," new Fire Victim Trust trustee sparks optimism for payments

Cathy Yanni talks to a group of state, local and town leaders, along with other Camp Fire survivors, about the concerns they have with the Fire Victim Trust during a visit on Thursday. (Steve Crowder)
Cathy Yanni talks to a group of state, local and town leaders, along with other Camp Fire survivors, about the concerns they have with the Fire Victim Trust during a visit on Thursday. (Steve Crowder)
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Years after destructive wildfires ignited by PG&E equipment burned Californians out of their homes, the Fire Victim Trust (FVT) has yet to make whole thousands of survivors. Those survivors, however, say new leadership could change that.

Survivors, like Linda Barton, remain penniless from FVT, the trust created as part of PG&E’s 2019 bankruptcy settlement to compensate nearly 70,000 people of the 2015 Butte Fire, 2017 North Bay Fires and 2018 Camp Fire $13.5 billion for the losses incurred. Barton lost her Paradise home, her jewelry business and much else of what she owned and has since been forced miles away to the town of Oroville until she saves enough money to rebuild on the Butte County Ridge.

"It's been such a rollercoaster,” says Barton while standing inside Paradise Community Park Friday morning. "Me and so many others are looking to just get enough money so that we can rebuild, that we can get settled and feel somewhat secure in our future."

The trust has been criticized for its lack of operational transparency, “excessive” payroll and startup expenses and lagging payments that claimants say are frequently pushed back. That was under the leadership of Retired Justice John Trotter, who resigned his position at the end of June.

Come July 1, Cathy Yanni took his place. She worked one step beneath the trustee position as the claims administrator prior to the role change. In a letter to claimants, she wrote:

I want the Trust to operate with even greater transparency and engage more directly with claimants, counsel, public officials and other stakeholders to build broader understanding of our work to help victims. I intend to meet with the residents of affected communities and their leaders and be more assertive keeping everyone updated on our progress.

When she took the new job, Paradise Town Mayor Steve Crowder invited her up the ridge. “Within 30 minutes” of the invitation, he says the new trustee accepted.

“She’s talking. You can get an answer for a question. I have her cell phone number. I didn’t have that with Trotter, and it probably wouldn’t have done any good if I had,” says Crowder inside town hall Friday morning.

Crowder describes communication with the previous trustee as “non-productive,” referencing multiple failed attempts to get answers to questions claimants had about their lagging payments. He specifically references the last form of communication the two had: a phone call between him, Trotter, Yanni and other Butte County officials.

“We got absolutely nowhere, made no progress,” says Crowder. “After that phone call, Cathy Yanni reached out to me and said, ‘I just had to reach out. That was such a horrible phone call.’ She said, ‘I want to work with you, and we want to get things done.’”

Thursday, Yanni took up Crowder’s offer and toured the rebuilding town. She additionally joined group discussions with town, county, and state leaders to address concerns with the trust that the previous trustee did not.

“She listened, she sympathized, she’s going to get answers for them when she can,” says Crowder. "She believes in transparency and communication. That is how you get things done and we had none of that before. We may not like the answers that she comes up with, but we’re going to have answers.”

Roughly 75% of claims have been addressed, meaning over 17,000 claimants have yet to receive a determination notice of how much money they are anticipated to receive from FVT. Crowder says Yanni made clear her intention to get the rest delivered by the end of the year, if not the beginning of 2023.

She further discussed the trust’s efforts to secure the remaining value of the trust that is currently in PG&E stock. The initial plan was to sell the stock when it performed high enough to meet the $13.5 billion value, but it has yet to reach that high. Crowder says Yanni told the group that efforts are being made to secure a state loan of $1.5 billion to cover the remainder.

Finally, Crowder says concerns with attorneys withholding their clients’ determination notices and payments was discussed. As the trust delivers payments every two weeks, he says the new trustee intends to use her “influence” to address the concern.

Barton conveniently received her determination notice years after first applying for it. She was one of the 20 survivors invited to the meeting, now saying her skepticism for FVT has lessened dramatically.

"She just gave off this caring, king personality that we all needed to see. Her number one priority is to get the rest of us, the 25% that's left, get money to us so we can move on,” says Barton. “When we left I think a good many of us, most of us felt good and very hopeful.”

But after years of lagging payments and non-transparency, some claimants say they will never fully trust the trust. With a new leader in the driver's seat, others say a brighter and more financially-full horizon is on its way.

“Considering everything that claimants have gone through, how do you expect them to trust the new trust?" asks KRCR.

"Until she proves that she can't be trusted, and I don't think that'll happen, you got to believe in it,” responds Crowder. “To my satisfaction, she has given me the reason to trust her. I didn’t have that before. Now I do.”

As of the end of July, FVT has delivered $4.43 billion of the $11.04 billion it has awarded to 47,486 claimants, according to its website.


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