Michigan Doctor and Owner of Medical Billing Company Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for $26 Million Health Care Fraud Scheme

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Detroit-area doctor was sentenced to 180 months in prison today for his role in a $26 million health care fraud scheme that involved billing Medicare for nerve block injections that were never provided and efforts to circumvent Medicare’s investigation of the fraudulent scheme.  A co-conspirator who owned a medical billing company was previously sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel L. Lemisch of the Eastern District of Michigan, Special Agent in Charge David P. Gelios of the FBI’s Detroit Division, Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh III of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Chicago Regional Office and Special Agent in Charge Manny Muriel of Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) made the announcement.

Johnny Trotter M.D., 42, of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge George C. Steeh of the Eastern District of Michigan.  The owner of the medical billing company, Elaine Lovett, 61, of Detroit, was sentenced by Judge Steeh on Sept. 26.  Judge Steeh also ordered each defendant to pay $9,199,946 in restitution and scheduled a hearing tomorrow on forfeiture.  Trotter and Lovett were convicted in April 2017 after a four-week jury trial of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, and three counts of health care fraud.  Trotter was remanded to custody pending a detention hearing tomorrow.

According to the evidence presented at trial, from May 2008 until May 2014, Trotter and Lovett knowingly submitted fraudulent bills for services that they knew had not been provided, mainly nerve block injections.  Additionally, after Medicare imposed a requirement in 2009 that required Trotter’s claims to undergo a medical review prior to payment, Trotter and Lovett conspired to circumvent Medicare’s fraud investigation of Trotter by creating sham medical practices, the evidence showed.  To continue to receive payment for services that were not provided, Trotter and Lovett concealed their involvement with these practices from Medicare, and instead recruited their family members and employees to serve as straw owners of the companies, the evidence further showed.

The FBI, HHS-OIG and IRS-CI investigated the case, which was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force under the supervision of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.  Fraud Section Assistant Chiefs Malisa Dubal and Allan Medina, as well as Trial Attorneys Tom Tynan and Jacob Foster, prosecuted the case.

The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  The Medicare Fraud Strike Force operates in nine locations nationwide.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has charged over 3,500 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for over $12.5 billion.

Owner of Florida Pharmacy Pleads Guilty in $100 Million Compounding Pharmacy Fraud Scheme; Real Properties, Cars and a 50-Foot Boat Will Be Forfeited

Monday, November 6, 2017

Seven Others Previously Pleaded Guilty

The president and owner of a Florida pharmacy that was at the center of a massive compounding pharmacy fraud scheme, which impacted private insurance companies, Medicare and TRICARE, pleaded guilty today for his role in the scheme.  Seven other individuals have previously pleaded guilty in connection to the scheme.  Various real properties, cars and a 50-foot boat will be forfeited as part of the guilty pleas.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District of Florida, Special Agent in Charge Eric W. Sporre of the FBI’s Tampa Field Office, Special Agent in Charge Robert F. Lasky of the FBI’s Miami Field Office, Special Agent in Charge Shimon Richmond of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Miami Regional Office and Resident Agent in Charge Brooke Harris of the U.S. Defense Criminal Investigative Service’s (DCIS) Tampa Regional Office made the announcement.

Nicholas A. Borgesano Jr., 45, of New Port Richey, Florida, the president and owner of A to Z Pharmacy of New Port Richey, pleaded guilty in the Middle District of Florida to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and one count of conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions involving criminally derived property.  His sentencing will be scheduled before U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr of the Middle District of Florida.

According to admissions made as part of his plea agreement, Borgesano owned and operated numerous pharmacies and shell companies that he and his co-conspirators used to execute a fraud scheme involving prescription compounded medications.  The scheme generated over $100 million in fraud proceeds, he admitted.  Borgesano acquired and controlled A to Z Pharmacy in New Port Richey, Havana Pharmacy, Medplus/New Life Pharmacy and Metropolitan Pharmacy, all of Miami; and Jaimy Pharmacy and Prestige Pharmacy, both of Hialeah, Florida.  He admitted using these pharmacies to cause the submission of false and fraudulent reimbursement claims for prescription compounded medications, chiefly pain creams and scar creams, to private insurance companies, Medicare and TRICARE.  Borgesano admitted that he and his co-conspirators manipulated billing codes in the reimbursement claims and submitted reimbursement claims for pharmaceutical ingredients they did not have.  Borgesano and his co-conspirators also paid kickbacks and bribes in exchange for prescriptions and patient identifying information used to further the scheme, including to a physician in exchange for the physician signing prescriptions for patients he never saw.  Borgesano admitted using A to Z Pharmacy as the hub of his operation on behalf of all his pharmacies.  He disbursed proceeds of the fraud scheme through a variety of methods, including by check and wire transfer to co-conspirators’ shell companies and through the purchase of assets, he admitted.

In addition to Borgesano, the following defendants have previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud for their roles in the scheme:

  • Bradley Sirkin, 55, of Boca Raton, Florida;
  • Scott P. Piccininni, 49, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida;
  • Edwin Patrick Young, 49, of New Port Richey, Florida;
  • Wayne M. Kreisberg, 40, of Parkland, Florida;
  • Matthew N. Sterner, 48, of New Port Richey, Florida;
  • Peter B. Williams, 57, of New Port Richey, Florida; and
  • Joseph Degregorio, 71, of New Port Richey, Florida

The cars that will be forfeited include a 1936 Ford Deluxe, a 1964 Chevrolet Corvette convertible, a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro, a 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and a 2008 Lamborghini convertible.  The boat that will be forfeited is a 2009 50’7” Cigarette racing boat.   The cars and boat had previously been seized.  The combined equity in the real properties, cars and boat that will be forfeited is over $7.6 million.  The real properties, cars and boat had been purchased with proceeds from the fraud scheme.

This case was investigated by the FBI with support from HHS-OIG and DCIS and was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, under the supervision of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.  The case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Christopher J. Hunter and Trial Attorney Timothy P. Loper of the Fraud Section.

The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  The Medicare Fraud Strike Force operates in nine locations nationwide.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has charged over 3,500 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for over $12.5 billion.

Chemed Corp. and Vitas Hospice Services Agree to Pay $75 Million to Resolve False Claims Act Allegations Relating to Billing for Ineligible Patients and Inflated Levels of Care

Monday, October 30, 2017

Chemed Corporation and various wholly-owned subsidiaries, including Vitas Hospice Services LLC and Vitas Healthcare Corporation, have agreed to pay $75 million to resolve a government lawsuit alleging that defendants violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false claims for hospice services to Medicare.  Chemed, which is based in Cincinnati, Ohio, acquired Vitas in 2004. Vitas is the largest for-profit hospice chain in the United States.

“Today’s resolution represents the largest amount ever recovered under the False Claims Act from a provider of hospice services,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “Medicare’s hospice benefit provides critical services to some of the most vulnerable Medicare patients, and the Department will continue to ensure that this valuable benefit is used to assist those who need it, and not as an opportunity to line the pockets of those who seek to abuse it.”

The settlement resolves allegations that between 2002 and 2013 Vitas knowingly submitted or caused to be submitted false claims to Medicare for services to hospice patients who were not terminally ill.  Medicare’s hospice benefit is available for patients who elect palliative treatment (medical care focused on the patient’s relief from pain and stress) for a terminal illness and have a life expectancy of six months or less if their disease runs its normal course.  Patients who elect the hospice benefit forgo the right to curative care (medical care focused on treating the patient’s illness).  The government’s complaint alleged that Vitas billed for patients who were not terminally ill and thus did not qualify for the hospice benefit.  The government alleged that the defendants rewarded employees with bonuses for the number of patients receiving hospice services, without regard to whether they were actually terminally ill and whether they would have benefited from continuing curative care.

The settlement also resolves allegations that between 2002 and 2013, Vitas knowingly submitted or caused to be submitted false claims to Medicare for continuous home care services that were not necessary, not actually provided, or not performed in accordance with Medicare requirements.  Under the Medicare hospice benefit, providers may be reimbursed for four different levels of care, including continuous home care services.  Continuous home care services are only for patients who are experiencing acute medical symptoms causing a brief period of crisis.  The reimbursement rate for continuous home care services is the highest daily rate that Medicare pays, and hospices are paid hundreds of dollars more on a daily basis for each patient they certify as having received continuous home care services rather than routine hospice services.  According to the complaint, the defendants set goals for the number of continuous home care days billed to Medicare and used aggressive marketing tactics and pressured staff to increase the volume of continuous home care claims, without regard to whether the patients actually required this level of crisis care.

“This litigation and settlement demonstrate the commitment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate and pursue hospice providers engaging in practices that abuse the Medicare hospice benefit,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Thomas M. Larson of the Western District of Missouri.  “The integrity of the Medicare program must not be compromised by a hospice provider’s financial self-interest.”

Vitas also entered into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) with the HHS Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) to settle the agency’s administrative claims.

Steve Hanson, Special Agent in Charge, for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, Kansas City Region, stated, “Healthcare providers who knowingly overbill our programs simply to increase their profits need to be put on notice that such conduct will not be tolerated, and we will pursue any and all remedies at our disposal to protect the tax payer and the Medicare and Medicaid programs.”

In addition to resolving the lawsuit filed by the United States, the settlement resolves three lawsuits filed under the whistleblower provision of the FCA, which permits private parties to file suit on behalf of the United States for false claims and share in a portion of the government’s recovery.  The Act permits the United States to intervene in such a lawsuit, as it did in the three whistleblower cases filed against the defendants.  These cases were subsequently transferred to the Western District of Missouri and consolidated with the government’s pending action.  The amount to be recovered by the private whistleblowers has not yet been determined.

The settlement was the result of a coordinated effort among the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Justice Department’s Civil Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri, with assistance from the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Central District of California and the Northern District of Texas and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.

The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only; there has been no determination of liability.

The civil lawsuits are:  United States v. Vitas Hospice Services, LLC, et al., Civil Action No. 13-00449 (W.D. Mo.); United States ex rel. Laura Spottiswood v. Chemed Corporation, et al., Civil Action No. 13-505 (W.D. Mo.), transferred from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois; United States ex rel. Barbara Urick v. VITAS HME Solutions, Inc., et al., Civil Action No. 13-536 (W.D. Mo.), transferred from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas; and United States ex rel. Charles Gonzales v. VITAS Healthcare Corporation, et al., Civil Action No. 13-00344 (W.D. Mo.), transferred from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Nurse Practitioner and Physician Indicted in Compounding Pharmacy Fraud Schemes

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Mississippi-based nurse practitioner was charged in an indictment unsealed today for her role in a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud TRICARE, the health care benefit program serving U.S. military, veterans and their respective family members.  A Mississippi-based physician was charged in a separate indictment filed last week for his role in a similar scheme.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst of the Southern District of Mississippi, Special Agent in Charge Christopher Freeze of the FBI’s Jackson, Mississippi Field Division and Special Agent in Charge Jerome R. McDuffie of the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) New Orleans Field Office made the announcement.

Susan Perry N.P., 58, of Grand Bay, Alabama, and Albert Diaz M.D., 78, of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, were charged in separate indictments returned on Oct. 18, in the Southern District of Mississippi, in Hattiesburg.  Perry’s indictment was unsealed upon her arrest and initial appearance today before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Gargiulo of the Southern District of Mississippi.  Perry is scheduled to be arraigned on Oct. 25, at 10:30 a.m., and Diaz is scheduled to be arraigned on Nov. 1, at 10:30 a.m., both before Judge Gargiulo.

Perry was charged in a 13-count indictment with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, four counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to distribute and dispense a controlled substance, one count of distributing and dispensing of a controlled substance, one count of conspiracy to solicit and receive healthcare kickbacks, four counts of soliciting and receiving healthcare kickbacks and one count of making false statements.  Diaz was charged in a 16-count indictment with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, four counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to distribute and dispense a controlled substance, four counts of distributing and dispensing a controlled substance, one count of conspiracy to falsify records in a federal investigation and five counts of falsification of records in a federal investigation.

The indictments allege that both Perry and Diaz participated in schemes to defraud TRICARE by prescribing medically unnecessary compounded medications, some of which included Ketamine, a controlled substance, to individuals they had not examined, for the purpose of having a Hattiesburg-based compounding pharmacy dispense these medically unnecessary compounded medications and to seek reimbursement from TRICARE.  According to the indictments, between February 2013 and October 2016, TRICARE reimbursed the compounding pharmacy more than $3.3 million for compounded medications prescribed by Perry, and between October 2014 and December 2015, TRICARE reimbursed the compounding pharmacy more than $2.3 million for compounded medications prescribed by Diaz.  Additionally, Perry is alleged to have received more than $50,000 in kickback payments from a marketer for the compounding pharmacy in return for prescribing the compounded medications, as well as having made false statements to the FBI.   Diaz is alleged to have submitted falsified patient records in response to an audit conducted by TRICARE to make it appear as though he had examined patients before prescribing the compounding medications.

An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The FBI, IRS-CI, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and other government agencies investigated the case.  Trial Attorneys Dustin M. Davis, Katherine Payerle and Jared Hasten of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Helen Wall of the Southern District of Mississippi are prosecuting the case.

The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  The Medicare Fraud Strike Force operates in nine locations nationwide.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has charged over 3,500 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for over $12.5 billion.

Chief Executive Officer of Armored Vehicle Company Convicted of Defrauding the United States

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A federal jury convicted the owner and chief executive officer of an armored vehicle company for his role in a scheme to provide the U.S. Department of Defense with armored gun trucks that did not meet ballistic and blast protection requirements set out in the company’s contracts with the United States.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; Acting U.S. Attorney Rick A. Mountcastle of the Western District of Virginia; Special Agent in Charge Adam S. Lee of the FBI’s Richmond, Virginia Field Office and Special Agent in Charge Robert E. Craig Jr. of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service’s (DCIS) Mid-Atlantic Field Office, made the announcement.

William Whyte, 72, of King City, Ontario, the owner and CEO of Armet Armored Vehicles of Danville, Virginia, was found guilty after a two-week trial of three counts of major fraud against the United States, three counts of wire fraud and three counts of criminal false claims.  Whyte was charged by an indictment in July 2012.  Following the verdict, Senior U.S. District Judge Jackson L. Kiser of the Western District of Virginia, who presided over the trial, remanded Whyte into custody pending a full bond hearing.  A sentencing date has not yet been scheduled.

Evidence at trial demonstrated that Whyte executed a scheme to defraud the United States by providing armored gun trucks that were deliberately underarmored.  According to the trial evidence, Armet contracted to provide armored gun trucks for use by the United States and its allies as part of the efforts to rebuild Iraq in 2005.  Despite providing armored gun trucks that did not meet contractual specifications, Whyte and his employees represented that the armored gun trucks were adequately armored in accordance with the contract, the evidence showed.  Armet was paid over $2 million over the course of the scheme, including an $824,000 advance payment that the United States made after Whyte personally promised the United States that he would use the money in furtherance of the contract, the evidence showed.

The case was investigated by DCIS and the FBI.  The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Caitlin Cottingham of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Carlton of the Western District of Virginia.  

Doctor Pleads Guilty to Health Care Fraud Conspiracy for Role in $19 Million Detroit Area Medicare Fraud Scheme

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A physician pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to commit health care fraud for his role in an approximately $19 million Medicare fraud scheme involving three Detroit area providers.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel L. Lemisch of the Eastern District of Michigan, Special Agent in Charge David P. Gelios of the FBI’s Detroit Division, Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh III of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Chicago Regional Office and Special Agent in Charge Manny Muriel of Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) made the announcement.

Abdul Haq, 72, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud before U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood of the Eastern District of Michigan.  Sentencing has been scheduled for May 29, 2018 before Judge Hood.

As part of his guilty plea, Haq admitted that he conspired with the owner of the Tri-County Network, Mashiyat Rashid, and his co-defendants and others to prescribe medically unnecessary controlled substances, including Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and Opana, to Medicare beneficiaries, many of whom were addicted to narcotics.  He further admitted that in furtherance of the conspiracy, Rashid and others also directed physicians, including Haq and others, to require Medicare beneficiaries to undergo medically unnecessary facet joint injections if the beneficiary wished to obtain prescriptions for controlled substances.

In furtherance of the conspiracy, Haq and others referred Medicare beneficiaries to specific third party home health agencies, laboratories and diagnostic providers even though those referrals were medically unnecessary, he admitted.  Haq also served as the straw owner of various pain clinics owned and/or controlled by Rashid, and submitted false and fraudulent enrollment materials to Medicare that failed to disclose the ownership interest of Rashid, as it was illegal for Rashid – a non-physician – to own medical clinics under Michigan law.  In total, Haq admitted that he submitted or caused the submission of approximately $19,322,846.60 in false and fraudulent claims to Medicare.

Haq was charged along with Mashiyat Rashid, 37, of West Bloomfield, Michigan; Yasser Mozeb, 35, of Madison Heights, Michigan; Spilios Pappas, 61, of Monclova, Ohio; Joseph Betro, 57, of Novi, Michigan; Tariq Omar, 61, of West Bloomfield, Michigan; and Mohammed Zahoor, 51 of Novi, Michigan, in an indictment unsealed on July 6.  Rashid, Mozeb, Pappas, Betro, Omar and Zahoor are awaiting trial.

An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

This case was investigated by the FBI, HHS-OIG and IRS-CI.  Trial Attorney Jacob Foster of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section is prosecuting the case.

The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  The Medicare Fraud Strike Force operates in nine locations nationwide.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has charged over 3,500 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for over $12.5 billion.

Western New York Contractors and Two Owners to Pay More Than $3 Million to Settle False Claims Act Allegations

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Alden, New York-based contractors, Zoladz Construction Company Inc. (ZCCI), Arsenal Contracting LLC (Arsenal), and Alliance Contracting LLC (Alliance), along with two owners, John Zoladz of Darien, New York, and David Lyons of Grand Island, New York, have agreed to pay the United States more than $3 million to settle allegations that they violated the False Claims Act by improperly obtaining federal set-aside contracts designated for service-disabled veteran-owned (SDVO) small businesses, the Justice Department announced today.    

“Contracts are set aside for service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses so to afford veterans with service-connected disabilities the opportunity to participate in federal contracting and gain valuable experience to help them compete for future economic opportunities,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “Every time an ineligible contractor knowingly pursues and obtains such set-aside contracts, they are cheating American taxpayers at the expense of service-disabled veterans.”

To qualify as a SDVO small business, a service-disabled veteran must own and control the company.  The United States alleged that Zoladz recruited a service-disabled veteran to serve as a figurehead for Arsenal, which purported to be a legitimate SDVO small business but which was, in fact, managed and controlled by Zoladz and Lyons, neither of whom is a service-disabled veteran.  The United States alleged that Arsenal was a sham company that had scant employees of its own and instead relied on Alliance and ZCCI employees to function.  After receiving numerous SDVO small business contracts, Arsenal is alleged to have subcontracted nearly all of the work under the contracts to Alliance, which was owned by Zoladz and Lyons, and ZCCI, which was owned by Zoladz.  Neither Alliance nor ZCCI were eligible to participate in SDVO small business contracting programs.  Zoladz and Lyons are alleged to have carried out their scheme by, among other things, making or causing false statements to be made to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) regarding Arsenal’s eligibility to participate in the SDVO small business contracting program and the company’s compliance with SDVO small business requirements.

“Detecting and discontinuing fraud, waste, and abuse committed by those who do business with the government remains a core function performed in this Office,” said Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, Jr. for the Western District of New York. “That function, however, takes on additional significance when the target of the fraud is a program designed for the benefit of the heroes among us—our disabled veterans.  Although this investigation did not uncover sufficient evidence to establish criminal liability by these entities and individuals, the multi-million dollar civil judgment ensures that those involved pay a heavy price for their decision to divert to themselves resources intended for the benefit of those who have made supreme sacrifices on behalf of all.”

“This settlement demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, the Department of Justice, and other law enforcement agencies to aggressively pursue individuals and companies that misrepresent themselves as service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses and deny legitimate disabled veterans the opportunity to obtain VA set-aside contracts,” said Inspector General, Michael J. Missal of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General (OIG).  “The VA OIG will continue to work diligently to protect the integrity of this important program, which is designed to aid disabled veterans.  I also want to thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners in this effort.”

“The contracting companies and principals allowed greed to corrupt a federal process intended to benefit service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses,” said Special Agent in Charge Adam S. Cohen of FBI Buffalo Field Office. “The FBI and our partners will continue to identify and investigate companies and individuals who target these types of programs for personal gain.”

The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private individuals to sue on behalf of the government for false claims and to share in any recovery.  The civil lawsuit was filed in the Western District of New York and is captioned United States ex rel. Western New York Foundation for Fair Contracting, Inc. v. Arsenal Contracting, LLC, et al., Case No. 11-CV-0821(S) (W.D.N.Y.).  As part of today’s resolution, the whistleblower will receive $450,000.

“This case is yet another example of the tremendous results achieved through the joint efforts of the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Department of Justice, and partner agencies to uncover and forcefully respond to fraud in Federal Government contracting programs, such as the Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Program in this case,” said Christopher M. Pilkerton, General Counsel of the SBA.  “Identifying and aggressively pursuing instances of civil fraud by participants in these procurement programs is one of SBA’s top priorities.”

“Providing false statements to gain access to federal contracts set aside for service-disabled veterans denies the government opportunities to meet its abiding commitment to our nation’s veterans,” said Acting SBA Inspector General Hannibal “Mike” Ware.  “The SBA’s Office of the Inspector General is committed to bringing those that lie to gain access to SBA’s preferential contracting programs to justice.  I want to thank the Department of Justice for its leadership and dedication to serving justice.”

“There is an obvious need and reason for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses in the government contracting process,” said Director Frank Robey of the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), Major Procurement Fraud Unit.  “Special Agents from Army CID will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to make every contribution possible to bring persons to justice who violate that process.”

This matter was investigated by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York, the FBI, the VA’s Office of Inspector General, the SBA’s Office of Inspector General, and Army CID.

The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.

CCC’s: It Is Time for an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute–Part 3

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This is Part Three of a four-part series of posts by myself and colleague Kimberly Justice on “It Is Time for an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute.”  Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

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Note:   If the Grassley/Leahy Anti-Retaliation Act is passed, that protection would be part of the whistleblower statute. Ms. Justice and I are advocating that an antitrust whistleblower statute should go farther and provide a reward for actionable cartel-busting information.

The SEC whistleblower statute is a very successful model to be followed for a potential antitrust whistleblower statute. There should be differences in some areas (discussed below), but the SEC program has shown to be an effective tool in preserving the integrity of the nations’ securities market while conserving the investigative resources of the SEC.  But, it took a severe financial crisis to overcome the objections to an SEC whistleblower statute.  Many of the stakeholders, such as the Chamber of Commerce that opposed allowing a whistleblower award as part of the Dodd-Frank Act are likely to oppose an antitrust whistleblower statute.  But in November 2016, then SEC chair Mary Jo White said: “The whistleblower program has had a transformative impact on enforcement and that impact will only increase in the coming years.”

The success of the SEC whistleblower statute, at least from an enforcement perspective, is one reason why we think the time has come for a similar antitrust whistleblower statute.  It works.  The SEC, which pays the whistleblower 10-30% of the sanctions collected in successful actions, has rewarded 46 whistleblowers with approximately $158 million for information that has led to successful enforcement actions.

The SEC statute, like the antitrust statute we propose, is different than a typical False Claims Act-type whistleblower claim where the relator (whistleblower) brings an action in the name of the United States alleging the government has been the victim of fraud.  The SEC statute basically provides an informant with a reward (bounty) for coming forward with actionable information where the SEC obtains monetary sanctions.  The SEC, however, is precluded from making monetary awards “to any whistleblower who is convicted of a criminal violation related to the judicial or administrative action for which the whistleblower otherwise could receive an award.”

While the SEC statute provides a model, there are areas where adjustments for the nature of cartel violations may be made in an antitrust whistleblower statute.  The full SEC legislation can be found here, but below are a couple of key provisions and our suggestions about how they might be modified.

Payment of Award

The SEC whistleblower program allows for a reward, “In any covered judicial or administrative action, or related action.” 

The Antitrust Division does not have administrative actions.  An antitrust whistleblower would be eligible for an award, in our view, only based on original information that led to criminal Sherman Act convictions and the imposition of fines based on a conviction.

 Amount of Award

The SEC provides for a whistleblower award only where the penalties exceed $1 million.  In such cases the reward is an aggregate amount [if more than one whistleblower] equal to—

‘‘(A) not less than 10 percent, in total, of what has been collected of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions; and

‘‘(B) not more than 30 percent, in total, of what has been collected of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions.

In our view, this may not be an appropriate award schedule for an antitrust whistleblower.  At a minimum, the $1 million threshold should be eliminated. A whistleblower statute may be particularly effective in construction-type contracts where the loss to the victim is acute.  For example, a rigged electrical contract at a local hospital that would have been $750,000 with competitive bidding but has a low fixed bid of $1 million is as worthy of a whistleblower award as an international cartel where each consumer suffers a relatively small loss, but cumulatively the loss will easily exceed $1 million.

Also, the 10 to 30 percent award range may be excessive in a large cartel case.  The impetus behind our proposed legislation is not so much to make a whistleblower a mega-lottery winner, but to provide a way to help the whistleblower pay for what could be substantial attorney fees, and to compensate the whistleblower for what may be a long period of unemployment or underemployment, regardless of anti-retaliation protection. Therefore, we would eliminate the minimum award of 10%, leave the maximum of 30% and perhaps require that in making the award the Antitrust Division consider a) the attorney fees incurred; and b) the likely or actual loss of income over a period of time, as well as the value of the information provided, the level of cooperation and the amount of the recovery.

No Recovery for One Convicted of the Violation

No SEC whistleblower award can be made to ‘‘to any whistleblower who is convicted of a criminal violation related to the judicial or administrative action for which the whistleblower otherwise could receive an award under this section.”

             An antitrust whistleblower statute should certainly retain this provision.  It is our sense that the most likely potential antitrust whistleblowers will be lower-level employees who know about a conspiracy and take some action in furtherance of it—thus creating criminal liability for themselves.  This will give the Antitrust Division much control over who can become a whistleblower.  The Division retains the discretion whether to give non-prosecution protection, a necessary first step before an insider can become a whistleblower.  If the potential whistleblower has a level of culpability such that the Antitrust Division is not comfortable accepting as a whistleblower, the simple answer is to not grant non-prosecution protection.  Another possible scenario is that the Antitrust Division grant non-prosecution protection to a highly culpable individual (making them eligible for an award because no conviction) but write into the cooperation agreement that the cooperator waive the right to a potential “bounty.”

There may be, and hopefully will be, some whistleblowers who do not need non-prosecution protection (customers, administrative staff or others who learn of a cartel but have no role in it).  But, in practice, the Antitrust Division would have significant control over the whistleblower program because it is likely that many potential whistleblowers would have to take as a first step, negotiating non-prosecution agreements.

 Office of the Whistleblower

            A key aspect behind the success of the SEC whistleblower provision is that the SEC actively promotes the program.  The SEC established an Office of the Whistleblower.  This is an excerpt from the office’s home page:

Assistance and information from a whistleblower who knows of possible securities law violations can be among the most powerful weapons in the law enforcement arsenal of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Through their knowledge of the circumstances and individuals involved, whistleblowers can help the Commission identify possible fraud and other violations much earlier than might otherwise have been possible.

The level to which the Antitrust Division promotes a new whistleblower statute will determine its level of success.  When the Division first began the revised leniency program, it rolled it out like a new iPhone.  The Division went to great lengths to advertise the program and make the program successful in practice by working with companies to help them qualify if at all possible.  The flexibility and discretion built in to an SEC style whistleblower statute will give the Antitrust Division the ability to accentuate the features the whistleblower provisions that work best for law enforcement while mitigating any possible downside (such as very culpable people getting awards).

Miscellaneous

We’ve only touched on the most significant feature of the SEC whistleblower program that may be mimicked in an antitrust whistleblower statute.  There would be more “sausage making” into creating actual legislation.  Other features of the SEC program worth noting are the reporting requirements to Congress and the Inspector General review and report on the program.  If an antitrust whistleblower statute is nearly as effective as the SEC statute, law enforcement and consumers will be the winners.  But, if an antitrust whistleblower statute is a bad idea, it can be a short-lived bad idea.  In light of the success of the SEC program, it is prudent to give it a chance.

Thanks for reading

Robert.connolly@geyergorey.com

Kimberly A. Justice, kjustice@ktmc.com

CCC’s: It Is Time For An Antitrust Whistleblower Statute–Part 2

Objections to an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute

The idea of an antitrust whistleblower is not new, but it has never gained much traction in the past.  There have been significant objections, or at least disinterest—particularly from the Department of Justice.  The mood seemed to be “Our cup runneth over with Amnesty applications so let’s not screw this thing up.”  But, perhaps times have changed.  Our analysis is that the objections to a whistleblower statute were either superficial, or when having merit, still not enough to outweigh the benefits of a whistleblower statute.

Before considering some of the possible downside to an antitrust whistleblower statute, a little explanation of what we have in mind may be helpful.  We propose an SEC-style whistleblower statue where an informant can be awarded a level of compensation (bounty) when information of illegality leads to charges and recovery by the SEC. This is different than a False Claims Act qui tam case where a Relator brings a case in the name of the government alleging the government has been defrauded.  In fact, an antitrust whistleblower statute is needed because a qui tam case is not generally available in price-fixing matters since it is the private sector, not the government that has been harmed.

Concerns About an Antitrust Whistleblower statute

 It’s worth noting that the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act has been passed twice unanimously by the Senate in the last two Congresses and is up for vote again on the Senate floor.  It will no doubt pass—most likely again unanimously.  There is agreement that a person who reports criminal antitrust activity should not face retaliation in the workplace. (Despite the consensus, the House has failed to take up this bill the last two times it has passed the Senate).  There is controversy, however, about whether a whistleblower should be eligible for some type of bounty if the information leads to successful cartel prosecution and the imposition of fines.

In 2011, the General Accounting Office Published a report on Criminal Cartel Enforcement that reported stakeholders’ views on a possible antitrust whistleblower statute (here).  This is a summary of the GAO findings:

There was no consensus among key stakeholders GAO interviewed–antitrust plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys, among others–regarding the addition of a whistleblower reward, but they widely supported adding antiretaliatory protection. Nine of 21 key stakeholders stated that adding a whistleblower reward in the form of a bounty could result in greater cartel detection and deterrence, but 11 of 21 noted that such rewards could hinder DOJ’s enforcement program. Currently, whistleblowers who report criminal antitrust violations lack a civil remedy if they experience retaliation, such as being fired, so they may be hesitant to report criminal wrongdoing, and past reported cases suggest retaliation occurs in this type of situation. All 16 key stakeholders who had a position on the issue generally supported the addition of a civil whistleblower protection though senior DOJ Antitrust Division officials stated that they neither support nor oppose the idea.

The GAO report is several years old and it may be that positions have been reevaluated.  For example, I think the Antitrust Division today would support the anti-retaliation measures in whistleblower statute.  But below is an analysis of some of the objections raised to making a bounty available to an antitrust whistleblower.

Whistleblower Credibility

 The Antitrust Division’s principal concern was that jurors may not believe a witness who stands to benefit financially from successful enforcement action against those he implicated.  GAO Report p. 39.  But, a whistleblower is highly unlikely to ever be a principle witness at a trial.  An antitrust crime typically involves many culpable actors.  A whistleblower would generally “get the ball rolling” and provide evidence that will turn other witnesses, and allow subpoenas and search warrants from target companies.  Further, a single whistleblower who might receive a financial reward seems no less credible than witnesses from an amnesty company where everyone—including the highest-ranking culpable executives—will have escaped criminal prosecution.  Also, criminal antitrust trials are relatively rare—almost all cases are resolved by pleas.  Finally, it is not logical to worry about the credibility of a witness you would otherwise not even know about absent a whistleblower statute.

A Whistleblower Reward Could Result in Claims That Do Not Lead to Criminal Prosecution: 

 There was some fear expressed in the GAO report that would-be whistleblowers would fabricate information in order to conjure up a cartel in the hopes of collecting a reward.  GAO Report p. 40.  Anything is possible, but the Antitrust Division folks are pretty savvy and have standards for opening grand jury investigations.  Moreover, the possibility of fabricated charges exists today with a company applying for leniency in the hopes of knee-capping competitors who would have to deal with a criminal cartel investigation.  The reality is a “false accusation” simply wouldn’t be corroborated by anyone else and could land the accuser in jail for making a false statement.

In a similar vane, concern was expressed that a whistleblower statute may result in a deluge of complaints to the Antitrust Division that would take additional resources to sift through.  This seems like a good problem to have.  When Ms. Justice and I were at the Division, we received a fair number of complaints that amounted to no more than oligopoly pricing.  It did not take too much time to ask: “What else ya got?”

* * * * * Click Here for the Rest of the Story * * * * *

Buyer Beware

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by Janet Labuda

After the 2009 special enforcement initiative, called Operation Mirage, CBP compiled statistical data proved that the undervaluation of imported goods from China had risen to the level of significant risk in some product categories. Supported by the Administration’s direction to level the trade playing field, addressing undervaluation will continue to be part of CBP’s comprehensive trade enforcement strategy.

While working for CBP, an in-house counsel remarked that you would know you are on the right enforcement track when case law supports your theory of risk.

An example of this observation recently surfaced. In a press release dated October 3, Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported that, as alleged in a False Claims Act complaint, a company called Notations, acting as a wholesaler, repeatedly ignored warning signs that its business partner, which imported garments from China, was engaged in a scheme to underpay customs duties on the imported garments it sold to Notations.  Pursuant to the settlement, Notations admitted and accepted responsibility for failing to act in response to indications of fraudulent conduct. The company agreed to pay $1 million in damages, and implement measures designed to prevent future fraud in its business and supply chain operations.

The importer of women’s apparel manufactured in China presented false and fraudulent invoices to CBP, showing prices that were discounted by 75 percent, or more, to avoid customs duties. The wholesaler, Notations, which was the importer’s biggest customer, admitted that it aided this scheme by repeatedly ignoring warning signs that the importer’s irregular business practices were highly suggestive of fraud.

Notations has also agreed to implement a written compliance policy that will include measures to educate its employees on identifying red flags for fraud in import transactions, to monitor the conduct of its business partners who act as importers, and to report all potentially fraudulent conduct to CBP.

To be noted in this example, the court was successful in pursuing a case against a company that was not the importer of record, and that is in a foreign location.
This should be a warning to all companies. It is recommended that your written compliance plan include steps to monitor the players in your supply chain.   If your suppliers are buying overseas, your procurement team needs to remember that caveat emptor can save them a world of trouble.