CEO Indicted For Wire Fraud And Aggravated Identity Theft

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Greenbelt, Maryland – A federal grand jury has indicted Zheng Geng, a/k/a “Jason Geng”, age 59, of Vienna, Virginia, on charges related to a scheme to defraud the United States. The indictment was returned on August 9, 2017, and unsealed today upon the arrest of Geng. Geng is the Chief Executive Officer of Xigen LLC (Xigen), which has offices in Maryland and Virginia.

The indictment was announced by Acting United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Stephen M. Schenning; Inspector General Paul Martin of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Office of Inspector General; Inspector General Allison Lerner of the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General; Special Agent in Charge Nick DiGiulio of the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General; Special Agent in Charge Gordon Thompson of the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General; and Special Agent in Charge Gordon B. Johnson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Baltimore Field Office.

According to the six-count indictment, Geng devised a scheme between 2005 to 2016 to defraud the United States by submitting false and fraudulent grant applications under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. The SBIR program aims to stimulate United States technological innovation. A further aim is to foster and encourage participation in technical innovation by socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses that in some instances are at least 51-percent owned and controlled by women. Geng prepared materially fraudulent proposals for awards, subsequent reports, and related communications under the programs.

To support the applications, Geng submitted endorsements for his grant applications using the identities of people without their permission, or misrepresenting their positions within Xigen. In addition, he submitted endorsements that misrepresented active affiliations with various universities including, Harvard University Medical School and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and budgeted funds for subcontractors without their knowledge and without providing them with budgeted funds. With this false information, the United States government approved SBIR program awards and grants through the Department of Health and Human Service’s National Institutes of Health and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The awards totaled over $1.8 million.

According to court documents, Geng used the rewarded funds for his own personal use and the use of his family members and associates.

“The NASA Office of Inspector General will continue to aggressively investigate those who undermine and defraud NASA programs and operations,” said Inspector General Martin. “The NASA OIG appreciates the efforts of the entire investigative and prosecution team during this multi-year investigation, and we look forward to continued cooperation with our law enforcement partners in this and related matters.”

Allison Lerner, Inspector General for the National Science Foundation said, “The SBIR program is a valuable tool for advancing promising new technologies. My office will continue to vigorously pursue attempts to defraud scarce research dollars intended to promote economic growth through innovative SBIR investments.”

“The United States Department of Health and Human services provides research grant funds to qualified small businesses; we cannot tolerate the theft of taxpayer funds meant for honest research projects” said Nick DiGiulio, Special Agent in Charge for the Inspector General’s Office of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Geng faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for wire fraud and a 2-year mandatory minimum consecutive sentence for each of the aggravated identity theft charges.

An indictment is not a finding of guilt. An individual charged by indictment is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty at some later criminal proceedings.

Acting United States Attorney Stephen M. Schenning commended the NASA Office of Inspector General, the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General, the HHS Office of Inspector General, U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General and the FBI for their work in the investigation. Mr. Schenning thanked Assistant U.S. Attorneys Phil Selden and Jennifer Sykes, who are prosecuting the case and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Salem who also helped investigate this case.

Contact ELIZABETH MORSE at (410) 209-4885

www.justice.gov/usao/md       

U.S. Files New Complaint Against City Of Los Angeles and a Former Redevelopment Agency to Recover Millions of Federal Grant Dollars Allegedly Obtained by Making False Promises to Provide Housing to Persons with Disabilities

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The United States late yesterday filed a complaint in intervention against the City of Los Angeles and the CRA/LA (formerly the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles) alleging that together they fraudulently obtained millions of dollars in housing grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by falsely certifying that the money was being spent in compliance with federal accessibility laws.

The complaint in intervention – which replaces a complaint previously filed on behalf of the United States by a “whistleblower” – alleges the city and CRA/LA received federal money by falsely promising to create accessible housing for people with disabilities. Instead of creating accessible housing, they used the money to create inaccessible housing that deprived people with disabilities an equal opportunity to find housing of their choice.

The city repeatedly certified its compliance with federal accessibility laws to obtain the federal funds without taking the required steps to ensure it complied, according to the complaint, which further alleges that many of the HUD-assisted apartment buildings failed to meet minimal accessibility requirements. The city allegedly approved the design and construction of inaccessible buildings, with, among other things:

  • slopes and ramps that are too steep for safe passage by persons with mobility disabilities;
  • door thresholds that are too tall for wheelchairs to roll over;
  • steps that prohibit access to common areas;
  • kitchen cabinets, shelves and surfaces that are outside of the accessible reach ranges of persons who use wheelchairs;
  • sinks, grab bars, mailboxes and circuit breakers mounted beyond the reach of wheelchair users;
  • pipes below sinks and lavatories that are not insulated, thereby posing a physical threat of burns to people who use wheelchairs; and
  • insufficient numbers of accessible parking spaces in garages and lots.

“The complaint filed yesterday underscores the Department’s commitment to ensure that people with disabilities are provided equal access to federally-funded public housing, as required by law,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

“Despite the federal government investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Los Angeles to create housing for everyone, the City of Los Angeles instead created housing only for some,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown for the Central District of California. “For 17 years, the city falsely certified that it had complied with federal law and covered up its repeated disregard of historic and important civil rights laws.”

The city and the CRA/LA allegedly violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, as well as failed to fulfill their duty to affirmatively further fair housing. Congress passed these accessibility laws to ensure people with disabilities have an opportunity to live in an integrated society, achieve independent living, and have the same opportunities for economic and social self-sufficiency as other citizens.

By law, the city and the CRA/LA are required to comply with the federal accessibility laws. They could not – neither directly, nor through contractual or other arrangements – deny people with disabilities the opportunity to benefit from housing services or subject them to discrimination based on disability.

The accessibility laws require recipients of federal funds to operate their housing programs in a manner that is accessible to people with disabilities. Among other things, they must have a system in place to ensure compliance with the laws. They are required to develop non-discriminatory policies and practices, hire a coordinator knowledgeable about accessibility, and implement a grievance procedure that allows for just resolution of complaints. They also must maintain a publicly available list of accessible units and their accessibility features so that people who require those features are able to find housing.

The federal accessibility laws also require that recipients of federal monies have a method in place to avoid giving accessible units needed by people with disabilities to people who do not need accessibility features. The laws also require that recipients of federal monies monitor apartment buildings to ensure they are designed, constructed and altered in compliance with the law so that, among other things, five percent of all units in certain multifamily housing will be accessible to people with mobility impairments, and an additional two percent will be accessible to people with visual and auditory impairments.

The United States’ lawsuit alleges that the city and CRA/LA failed to meet these legal obligations.

The lawsuit, United States ex rel. Ling, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al., CV11-974-PG, was originally filed in U.S. District Court by whistleblowers Mei Ling, a resident of Los Angeles who uses a wheelchair, and the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group. The United States elected to intervene in the lawsuit and take over the litigation, which prompted the unsealing of the whistleblowers’ complaint in June. The case is pending before U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez.

The lawsuit was filed under the qui tam – or whistleblower – provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit private parties to sue on behalf of the United States when they believe that a party has submitted false claims for government funds, and to receive a share of any recovery.

This matter was investigated by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California and the HUD Office of Inspector General.

The claims asserted against the City of Los Angeles and the CRA/LA are allegations only; there has been no determination of liability.

Former Deputy Director of USAID Contractor Sentenced for Theft of Grant Funds

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

South African Doctor Took Over $200,000 Meant to Promote Safer Childbirth

WASHINGTON – Eugene Sickle, the former deputy executive director of a South African research institute, was sentenced today to seven months of incarceration and ordered to pay $206,250 in restitution for a scheme in which he stole grant funds originating with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The sentencing, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was announced by Channing D. Phillips, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and Jonathan Schofield, Special Agent in Charge for the USAID Office of Inspector General, Office of Investigations.

Sickle, 47, a chemist and a citizen of South Africa, pled guilty in May 2017 to a charge of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. The plea, which was contingent upon the Court’s approval, called for an agreed-upon sentence of six months to 12 months and a day of incarceration. The Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson accepted the plea today and sentenced Sickle accordingly. In addition to the restitution order, the judge issued a forfeiture money judgment of $206,250. Following his release, Sickle will be subject to deportation proceedings.

Based in Washington, D.C., USAID is a U.S. government agency that provides international development assistance and humanitarian aid worldwide. It implements and administers foreign assistance programs and funds, including those supporting global health, from dedicated offices (“missions”) around the world. USAID’s South Africa mission is one such office that works with local organizations in that country. USAID’s Office of Inspector General bases investigators in 11 countries outside the United States, including South Africa, and provides oversight of USAID programs and operations around the world.

According to a statement of offense, signed by the defendant as well as the government, Sickle was deputy executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, a South African research institute focusing on sexual and reproductive health as well as vaccine-preventable diseases. Its primary source of funding is USAID, and Sickle administered grant funds for projects. One such project involved a mobile electronic device software application, in connection with the South African National Department of Health, which would help facilitate safer childbirth deliveries in South Africa.

On Oct. 2, 2015, according to the statement of offense, Sickle and the institute’s chief executive officer signed a contract with a company called Alzar Consulting Services Ltd. to develop the childbirth app. Likewise, an individual named “Dr. Carla Das Neves” Alzar’s purported director, signed the contract. Pursuant to this contract, the institute made two payments to Alzar totaling $206,250. However, the childbirth app has never been developed.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Sickle created Alzar in the British Virgin Islands. Unbeknownst to anyone at the research institute, he was the sole owner of the company. Sickle also created e-mail accounts for Alzar and fake Alzar employees, including “Carla Das Neves.” He created a fake LinkedIn page for “Carla Das Neves,” which had a beach scene for a picture, and falsely claimed that “Carla Das Neves” was a trained expert in aid/relief work.

Sickle shepherded the research institute’s contract with Alzar through the approval and compliance process. He signed the contract both as himself and also as “Carla Das Neves.”

According to the statement of offense, Sickle did not perform any of the work required under the contract, nor did anyone else. None of the USAID money was used for its intended purpose to facilitate safer childbirth in South Africa. Instead, Sickle diverted the money to himself personally, and an associate.

Sickle resigned from his position last year. Agents with the USAID Inspector General’s Office arrested him in Washington, D.C., in February 2017. He has been in custody ever since.

This case was investigated by the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of Inspector General. It was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys John P. Marston and Denise Simmonds and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Vesna Harasic-Yaksic of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

War Against Global Warming Creates Major Enforcement Risks to Grantees

Despite what you hear about United States withdrawal from the Paris accords and increased grant enforcement from Inspector Generals at the EPA, Department of Energy, and NASA, government and corporate action and funding continues to coalesce around this issue cluster and that is not likely to change quickly if at all, even as the U.S. government reduces its “green” footprint.

However quickly you dismiss the political fight’s effect on the ultimate outcome of the war that is currently raging between global warming advocates and global warming deniers, you should not dismiss the effects this battle has on the risk profile of current government contractors and government grantees.  In short, pushback by the current administration policy against “green” initiatives increase the perceived value of these grant fraud cases to enforcers.

Why?  Cases against grantees that received money under the last Administration’s priorities helps undermine the moral case for global warming. In fact, undermining the case for global warming through the development of “green” grant fraud cases is a smaller mountain to climb than having to disprove the so-called scientific consensus which, from their vantage point, was created through government grant funding.  While it is hard to “prove the negative” (that man-made CO2 has no effect on temperature) it is easier to show that “green” research and development was subject to fraud, waste and abuse.  Once the case is made that “green” grants involved fraud, waste and abuse, it is but a small step to establish in public opinion that the “green” technologies themselves are fraudulent.

The Trump Administration can pursue a blue print in the current struggle that was drafted by the Iraq anti-war movement that many believe adversely impacted what was then called the “War on Terror” resulting in what may be viewed as hasty withdrawal from Iraq.  In 2005-2006, media accounts began circulating about fraud, waste and abuse in the “war zone.”  In October 2006, the National Procurement Fraud Task Force was formed to marshal the efforts by agents and prosecutors.  A similar effort involving Grant Fraud has already started today.  In January 2007, there were perhaps a half-dozen “war-zone” cases filed. Within three years, there were over 100 warzone cases filed.  The vast increase spilled over into fraud generally and in 2010 there had been perhaps 700 cases filed across the Department of Justice involving procurement fraud and grant fraud.  There were probably ten to twenty times that number of inquiries, investigations, and qui tam suits filed.

Although it is impossible to factor the effect the public perceptions of fraud and corruption had on public opinion regarding the War in Iraq, no one can argue that its effect was negligible.  Here the current Administration wants to undermine resolve in continuing to fight the “War Against a Heating Planet” so prosecutors looking to advance their careers under the new Administration already have begun beating the investigative bushes to see what complainants, informers, complaints and investigations are coming into the “green” fraud enforcement pipeline.

Green Grants and Grantees are now in #GFPFE crosshairs and there is no bag limit

The Economist’s handy graph showing the breakdown of the Trump Administration’s Proposed Budget shows in stark budgetary terms what US government agencies are facing.  I have reviewed the proposed budget and have concluded that it is the strongest indicator yet that the Trump Administration intends to reinvigorate Grant Fraud and Procurement Fraud Enforcement (#GFPFE).  The graph shows a change in overall agency funding and portends an intra-agency reorientation that is likely to effect grantees or contractors that have been awarded or are currently working on Grants or Contracts awarded by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Department of Energy (Energy).

Let’s review:

  • Review and Recap of Current Posture:

I have previously laid out  here out about why conditions are perfect for a renaissance in Grant Fraud and Procurement Fraud Enforcement (GFPFE). I took the Department of Energy’s enforcement temperature here, I looked at an EPA-OIG audit of laboratories here, and I noticed a NASA-OIG audit announcement of ground and ocean temperatures here. Last week there was an NPR story on case by case review of individual EPA scientists while newly minted EPA Administer Scott Pruitt made statements here questioning the connection between human activity and climate change while raising questions about the measurement of global temperatures. Then a top level EPA transition official, David Schnare, resigned, but not before acknowledging that while ” the vast majority of career staff at the EPA… are dedicated public servants,…there are a small handful “who were definitely antagonistic” to Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt. “They’re here for some other reason. They’re here for a cause,” he was quoted as saying in The Hill.

  • Presidential Shift in Priorities Always Wins:

EPA career civil servants who think nobility of purpose protects them in the face of an overwhelming Presidential Administration shift in priorities should pay a visit to the Antitrust Division’s field offices in Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas and Philadelphia (punch line: they no longer exist).  The Antitrust Division Criminal Program’s Senior Litigators, who woke up on 911 in the World Trade Center Marriott, eagerly supported a GFPFE initiative whose purpose was to “protect the supply chain of goods and services to the nation’s warfighter.” Their tireless work and willingness to support other components of USDOJ in GFPFE efforts became a liability when a new Presidential Administration changed the definition of success from number of cases filed to the number of cases not filed (for anyone wanting to learn about the important competition enforcement function Antitrust Division Field Offices performed can start with the dearly departed Philadelphia Field Office’s Chief Robert E Connolly’s column here). The bottom line is Presidential shift in priorities always wins over perceived nobility of purpose of career public servants.

  • Nobility of Purpose in combatting CO2 is going to be challenged

I know it will come as a shock to many, but there are many scientists–legitimate scientists–who do not come to the same conclusions about the connection between rising CO2 levels and rising temperatures.  I have no idea what the truth is, but I recognize that when you have a President and heads of the EPA and Energy who doubt the warming narrative and view expenditures in that regard to be a waste of money. It would behoove everyone in the risk assessment business to understand what they think and read what they read.  If you restrict your news to the Washington Post and the New York Times, you are flying blind.  Worse, your clients will be flying blind. It is important to recognize that the outgoing administration saw this coming and adorned future budgets with global warming money that will be hard to cut out.  That will stimulate efforts to try.

  • Let’s Look At the Proposed Budget for Department of Energy:

The preamble states:

[The Budget] reflects an increased reliance on the private sector to fund later-stage research, development, and commercialization of energy technologies and focuses resources toward early-stage research and development. It emphasizes energy technologies best positioned to enable American energy independence and domestic job-growth in the near to mid-term.

My translation: Grants for developing green technologies are drying up.  No more Solyndras.

The preamble states:

It also ensures continued progress on cleaning up sites contaminated from nuclear weapons production and energy research and includes a path forward to accelerate progress on the disposition of nuclear waste. At the same time,the Budget demonstrates the Administration’s strong support for the UnitedStates’ nuclear security enterprise and ensures that we have a nuclear force that is second to none. The President’s 2018 Budget requests $28.0 billion for DOE, a$1.7 billion or 5.6  percent decrease from the 2017 annualized CR level. The Budget would strengthen the Nation’s nuclear capability by providing a $1.4 billion increase above the 2017 annualized CR level for the National Nuclear SecurityAdministration, an 11 percent increase.

My translation: Grants for development of nuclear energy capabilities and military nuclear applications are back in vogue.  $6.5 billion in clean-up funds will be oriented towards nuclear.  The important factor to consider is that, in all likelihood, this changes the mix of responsive contractors.

  • Let’s look at EPA proposed budget:

The Compliance Assurance budget is lowered to $419 million, which is $129 million below the 2017 annualized CR level. It “better targets” EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) at a level of approximately $250 million, which would result in a savings of $233 million from the 2017 annualized CR level. ORD would prioritize activities that support decision-making related to core environmental statutory requirements, as opposed to extramural activities, such as providing STAR grants.

It supports Categorical Grants with $597 million, a $482 million reduction below 2017 annualized CR levels. These lower levels are in line with the broader strategy of streamlining environmental protection. This funding level eliminates or substantially reduces Federal investment in State environmental activities that go beyond EPA’s statutory requirements.

It eliminates funding for specific regional efforts such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay, and other geographic programs. These geographic program eliminations are $427 million lower than the 2017 annualized CR levels. The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities.

It eliminates more than 50 EPA programs, saving an additional $347 million compared to the2017 annualized CR level.

My translation: Grants for development of green technologies and reducing CO2 emissions are slashed.  EPA is being oriented around traditional toxins to land, water and air.  Its administration of $100 million to fix Flint Michigan’s water problems and orientation around poisoning will help with the repositioning. 

So while Energy moves onto new contractors for a nuclear spend, EPA moves towards traditional environmental problems and even NASA will now move, happily for many, toward an ambitious space program, all three agencies move away from green and CO2 mitigation programs.  Current contractors and grantees in these areas have a dual problem.  First, the funding in these areas is drying up.  Second, any problems that are found in the award or administration of grants or contracts in these now shuttered programs have a lower risk of causing collateral damage to supporters of the new Administration and they undermine the case against shuttering those programs.  Within the investigative agent community and auditing community examining procurements and grants in these shuttered program areas, investigation carries even lower risk and even higher reward (imagine how an indictment early next week alleging a massive fraud scheme involving a company that had been administering a major grant would be received by the Administration that is looking to justify a shift in funding priorities).  Investigative agents, many of whom in the prior Administration felt professionally stunted because of managerial interference against developing fraud and corruption cases have now been unshackled.  Inquiries that could never blossom into full blown investigations using IG subpoenas and active grand juries can now be taken out from from the back of desk drawers or they can be reopened with the support of career mid-level management looking to take action that will be looked upon favorably when the permanent Inspector General arrives later in the year.

 

People for People (PFP), DOJ-OIG and #GFPFE

By Bradford.Geyer@GeyerGorey.Com

Changes in enforcement priorities dictate when grant irregularities are referred to enforcement agencies.  This case involving People for People (PFP) provides a good example of that principal.  In reviewing the reports and correspondence, it appears that the matter remained bottled up in DOJ OIG-Audit.  Had it been referred to the investigative agents within the agency you can see how the alleged conduct referenced in the 2013 audit report could have stimulated investigation perhaps with the support of a US Attorney’s Office. Here are the report’s conclusions:

“PFP did not fully comply with the grant requirements we tested. We found material weaknesses in PFP’s internal controls, expenditures, drawdowns, FFRs, progress reports, budget, and program performance resulting in the questioned costs totaling $893,445. These weaknesses resulted in PFP providing multiple sets of accounting records during the audit, even though the grants had ended. We found that PFP charged $420,729 to the grant for personnel and fringe benefit costs that were unallowable. We found that PFP charged direct costs of $34,834 to the grant for unallowable expenditures, and $9,631 to the grant that could not be adequately supported. PFP also charged indirect costs of $232,754 to the grant for unallowable expenditures. PFP drew down $195,497 in grant funds in excess of the accounting records. We found PFP could not support the amounts drawn down or reported on the Federal Financial Reports. PFP could also not provide a correct account of grant charges per grant budget category to ensure proper budget management. Additionally, we found that PFP did not have procedures in place to ensure the timely submission of Federal Financial Reports and progress reports, nor did it ensure that progress reports provided supported information. We also determined that PFP did not meet the goals and objectives of the grants.”   

The Grantee here received grant payments from the government for $893,445 based on unallowable and unsupported grant expenditures.  This would have been seen by agents as a major problem. The “multiple sets of accounting records” (whether or not ultimately defensible) would have attracted attention.   Agents might have seen another red flag and opportunity in what seems to be a reference in the audit report to a redacted executive who abruptly exited the grantee.  A quick interview of this exited executive or some interviews around the subject of the exit would be seen as possibly carrying a beneficial reward risk ratio.   We can’t know for sure, but the file doesn’t seem to indicate that agents were copied on the correspondence or reports so they may not have known about it.   

Under many enforcement regimes the conclusions above might have caused an immediate referral  from audit to investigative agents within the OIG and likely to a US Attorney’s Office.  Instead, People for People was permitted to implement what looks like an informal corporate integrity agreement drafted by the government while it was permitted to pay back one half million dollars over a period of years.  As someone who represents grantees I understand how honest, ethical and well-intentioned grantees can find themselves in situations comparable to this one,  but investigative agents within enforcement agencies are rarely persuaded by benign explanations for otherwise suspicious conduct.  I also can see how this result may have been extraordinarily evolved while it maximized public welfare benefits.  It is just I know from first hand experience that agents and prosecutors rarely seem to be motivated by such notions.  

It would be interesting to understand the factors that were considered within DOJ-OIG that dictated that this matter to remain “in house” within an audit component rather than being referred to the US Attorney’s Office or USDOJ Criminal Division.  While patience and forgiveness are wonderful traits we don’t often see those traits exhibited as strongly as they seem to have been exhibited here and matters like these when reviewed by new leadership could contribute to a view that there was somewhat lax enforcement of grant spending in recent years.

Update: DOJ OIG Audit of People for People, Inc., Results in Repayments Totaling More Than $554,000 Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz announced today that People for People, Inc., of Philadelphia, PA, has made cash repayments of more than $554,000 to the DOJ as a result of a DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) grant audit. The OIG’s audit report, which we released in 2013, assessed People for People’s management of two grants from the DOJ Office of Justice Programs (OJP). These grants were intended to fund mentoring programs for children of prisoners. We concluded that People for People had not complied with various grant requirements, and we identified $893,445 in unallowable and unsupported grant expenditures. The report included 13 recommendations to improve People for People’s grant management and address these questioned costs. Since the audit, People for People has worked closely with OJP to implement all of our recommendations for management improvements and provided us with additional documentation sufficient to address approximately $339,000 of the questioned costs. The more than $554,000 in cash repayments announced today were made to address the balance of the questioned costs, which primarily related to expenses for which accounting records were insufficient, salary payments that were unallowable, and payments for rent, telephone bills, and other indirect costs that had not been approved by OJP. The OIG’s August 2013 report is available on the OIG’s website at the following link: https://www.oig.justice.gov/reports/2013/g7013007r.pdf.

 

USDOJ Grants and Grantees now in the Crosshairs

We see continuing signs of reinvigorated grant fraud enforcement.  The latest submisison involves a long simmering dispute that has resurfaced involving corporate fines that are recovered, allocated and spent by USDOJ.  USDOJ grants have been a source of frustration for supporters of the current Administration and some believe that white collar enforcement suffered as perverse incentives encouraged the offsets of criminal cases and terms of imprisonment in favor of large recoveries of fines from corporations (Does anyone from the cartel world recall the furious whispers about this case?).  Now there seems to be Trump Administration-led push to shine a media spotlight on USDOJ grants.  Typically, this foreshadows official actions:

Last night Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was on Fox News discussing the issue speaking in bellicose terms. This accompanied various news articles that covered various aspects of the dispute.

Today on Fox News there is a lengthy piece on the subject with sub links:

“It’s clear partisan politics played a role in the illicit actions that were made,” Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, told Fox News. “The DOJ is the last place this should have occurred.

Findings spearheaded by the House Judiciary Committee point to a process shrouded in secrecy whereby monies were distributed to a labyrinth of nonprofit organizations involved with grass-roots activism.”

To see how far some have delved into this issue, check out this google search.  You have to go to less established media sources like this InfoWars article referencing State Department grants to get a sense of where this could lead (some will need to don protective suits–oh what we have to do for risk analysis!).  Since there was not as much reporting as there could have been, it is likely this issue could get significant play now. There is also likely to be a convergence effect when problems in one grant tranch from one agency  spills over into other grant programs.

This latest resurfacing of this issue by White House allies suggests a trend and it will likely add to calls for a significant realignment of DOJ on the left side of the org chart and also in its mission in terms of how it helps victims. Particularly vulnerable to significant reform are CRS, OJP, COPS, Office of Violence Against Women (grants) (biannual report) and Office of Access to Justice.  Obviously, grants and grantees will be a subject of interest as well.

I have referenced a prior DOJ IG 2016 civil case here.  Designating an enforcement priority can change whether a case is criminal or civil because criminal investigation assets redeploy and there is often a multiplier effect because the combination of criminal and civil enforcement assets allows for parallel investigations.  Overnight,  a larger swath of FBI agents start trolling for footholds in grants or procurement areas.  Not good.  When investigators expand the duration or number of grants reviewed, when they send agents to do coordinated interviews while serving grand jury and inspector general subpoenas and when AUSA’s start calling witnesses before traditional grand jury investigations, things can change fast.

Procurement Fraud and Grant Fraud enforcement programs are likely to be revitalized by the Trump Administration.

It’s no shock that a political change in the Executive Branch leads to an increase in grant fraud and procurement fraud enforcement. The reason? There is low risk in scrutinizing grants and contracts awarded by the outgoing administration. Whatever shenanigans are discovered by a new Administration will have occurred during the term of the previous administration and any negative economic impacts from pulling a grant or imposing a fine, will only impact the grant recipient and, potentially, its subcontractors, who are often presumed by an incoming Administration to have stronger ties to its predecessor.

Imagine you are a high-level Department of Justice official in a new administration positioned to deploy resources toward matters you believe most merit investigation and possible prosecution.  You will need to work on accomplishing the new Administrations mission as well as continue to satisfy your existing management chain with positive results.  What is the best way to move forward in this environment.

The most obvious way is to go after the low-hanging fruit: to aim the enforcement initiative at situations in which there is a high risk/reward ratio. Nowhere in white collar enforcement, is this ratio more favorable than in the realm of grant fraud and procurement fraud enforcement (GFPFE). Contributing to the richness of this area from an enforcement standpoint is that since 2009 the enforcement apparatus adopted a rigid prevention model, decreased the number of federal agents developing cases, increased barriers between the investigations and audit components of the Office of Inspector Generals (OIG’s) and made it more difficult to engage in aggressive or effective GFPFE.[1] This shift away from effective GFPFE in 2009 coincided with the largest spending increase in government history so it stands to reason there will be plenty of cases worth developing.

* * * Click Here for the Rest of the #GFPFE Analysis * * *

 

Department of Energy OIG Enforcement under a Trump Administration

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) is a Cabinet-level department of the United States Government. Its responsibilities include the nation’s nuclear weapons program, nuclear reactor production for the United States Navyenergy conservation, energy-related research, radioactive waste disposal, and domestic energy production. It also directs research in genomics; the Human Genome Project originated in an iniative between DOE, NIH and international collaborators.  DOE sponsors more research in the physical sciences than any other U.S. federal agency, the majority of which is conducted through its system of National Laboratories.

Former Governor of Texas Rick Perry has been nominated as the next Secretary of Energy, and a vote is anticipated in the next few weeks.  April Stephenson currently serves as Acting Inspector General United States Secretary of Energy and will continue to head the department,  unless Secretary Perry makes a change. As a practical matter, DOE is unlikely to get a permanent Inspector General installed for many months. This means that its roughly 70 investigative agents in roughly 12 US cities will engage in enforcement that is somewhat skewed by perceptions about what a future Secretary of Energy will want.  For these reasons, I would project that investigative agents will believe they will ultimately receive more overhead support for investigations developed now.

Based on basic familiarity with DOE contracts and DOE-OIG investigative activity in the past as well as reasonable assumptions about how agents will interpret statements made by Trump Administration officials, I see three primary areas where agents will likely focus current efforts to develop cases:

1) Clean-up Sites.

Clean-up sites are viewed as cash cows with poor oversight.  I have lost track of how many there are, but there are  more than half a dozen prime ones including Hanford, Idaho Falls and Savanah River.  The Hanford site is an example of a site that has had longstanding troubles.  CH2MHill took a hit back in 2013 for an $18.5 million qui tam and, just recently, at the same site, BNI and URS agreed to  pay $125 Million for false claims regarding deficient nuclear quality procurements and improper payments to lobby Congress.  Internal conjecture is that there are more false claims being made at these and at other clean-up sites and it would behoove any companies involved at these sites to brush up on compliance and internally investigate around vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

2) Management and Operational (M&O) Contracts

Management Operations Contractors, whether deserved or not, are a source of frustration to enforcers.  These are huge, large dollar volume contracts that are viewed by enforcers as having poor oversight.  Other sources of frustration is that enforcers believe that they have no visibility with indirect contractors.  This feeling is even generally held in regard to direct contractors where transparency is lacking and contractors are perceived as foot dragging.  Because of lack of appetite in some US Attorney’s Offices for these complex investigations, there was less support in the past few years than perhaps there could have been, but I believe this will begin to change as the Trump Administrations enforcement priorities becomes more clear.

3) Green Grants

Although these are smaller dollar volume contracts, legal theories are easier to fashion around bite-sized grants and the story around each is usually more accessible to prosecutors and potential juries.  There is lingering resentment that politics adversely affected investigations that adversely impacted potential prosecutions (see Solyndra as an often cited example in the opinion of some) and there is a view among enforcers that investigations involving more than $2 billion in green grants and associated loans guaranteed by the government were never pursued appropriately.

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

 

Founder of Non-Profit Charged with Bribing Former Prince George’s County Official in Exchange for Grant Funds

A Maryland man has been charged with bribery and making false statements as part of an alleged scheme to obtain government grants for a charitable organization of which he was the founder. The  case was brought via a criminal complaint filed by the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland. It alleges that the defendant made three annual payments of $5000 each to a member of the Prince George’s County Council to secure annual grants of $25,000 for the Salvadoran Business Caucus, which claimed to award scholarships to high school and college students.
The agent affidavit accompanying the criminal complaint describes conversations  that allegedly occurred between the council member and  the defendant in sufficient detail as to indicate that tape recordings of the conversations exist.
Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Maryland

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Greenbelt, Maryland – A criminal complaint has been filed charging

, of Rockville, Maryland, late yesterday with bribery and making false statements in connection with a scheme to engage in bribery in order to influence a public official in the performance of his official duties in Prince George’s County. Ayala’s initial appearance is scheduled today at 1:45 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy J. Sullivan in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The criminal complaint was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein; Special Agent in Charge Gordon B. Johnson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Baltimore Field Office; Acting Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Holloman of the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, Washington, D.C. Field Office; and Chief Hank Stawinski of the Prince George’s County Police Department.

According to affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Ayala was an accountant and founder of Ayala and Associates Public Accountants in Washington, D.C. Ayala was also the founder of the Salvadoran Business Caucus, a non-profit organization also known as the Caucus Salvadoreno Empresarial, Inc. (CSE). CSE’s website stated that CSE awarded scholarships to high school and college students.

The affidavit alleges that Ayala paid bribes to former Prince George’s County Council Member Will Campos in exchange for grant funding. Specifically, the affidavit alleges that Ayala paid Campos $5,000 for each of County fiscal years 2012 through 2015, in exchange for $25,000 in grants to CSE in each of those years. For example, on August 13, 2014, Campos met with Ayala for lunch in Washington, D.C. During the meeting, Ayala asked Campos what would happen after Campos left his position on the County Council and assumed his position within the Maryland General Assembly. According to the affidavit, Ayala advised, “The arrangement is still on,” and Campos asked if Ayala had anything for Campos. Ayala asked Campos to give him two weeks, and “I [Ayala] call you and I’ll say let’s, let’s have a drink and you know what it’s for.” Campos asked for $5,000, “like last time,” and Ayala agreed.

According to the affidavit, on September 23, 2014, Ayala had dinner with Campos at a restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland, and discussed the grant money. Specifically, Campos advised that he would push for Ayala to still receive grant money after Campos left office. At the conclusion of the meal, Ayala walked Campos out of the restaurant and allegedly handed Campos an envelope bearing a label for CSE and containing a cashier’s check for half the agreed upon amount. The affidavit alleges that Ayala explained, “I was unable to obtain cash. It’s better like this. This comes from – from a third party who knows me, so it’s better.” Campos joked that Ayala was paying “half now, half later,” and Ayala responded, “I would say that.”

According to the affidavit, on January 8, 2015, Ayala met with Campos at Ayala’s office in Washington, D.C. Ayala reached into his desk and retrieved an envelope. Ayala handed the envelope to Campos, who asked if it was “the rest that we talked about? 2,500?” and Ayala responded, “Yeah.” The affidavit alleges that inside the envelope, Ayala had placed $2,500 in cash.

On January 5, 2017, Ayala was interviewed by federal law enforcement agents. The affidavit alleges that Ayala denied providing anything of value to Campos in exchange for receiving Prince George’s County grant money for CSE. Thereafter, agents showed Ayala still photographs from videos taken while Ayala was making bribe payments to Campos on September 23, 2014 and January 8, 2015.

If convicted, Ayala faces a maximum sentence of ten years in prison for bribery, and a maximum of five years in prison for false statements. An individual charged by criminal complaint is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty at some later criminal proceedings.

United States Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein commended the FBI, IRS-CI, and Prince Georges County Police Department for their work in the investigation. Mr. Rosenstein thanked Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas P. Windom, Mara Zusman Greenberg, and James A. Crowell IV, who are prosecuting the case.

%d bloggers like this: