Wednesday May 22

EVERYBODY'S BUSINESS - Blowing the Whistle on Procurement Fraud

Earlier this year, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ordered Gen Digital Inc. to pay $53 million in damages for cheating the federal government. The case against the company—formerly known as NortonLifeLock, a spinoff of Symantec Corp.—originated in a lawsuit filed by whistleblower Lori Morsell, who stood to receive a share of the payout. While working at Symantec more than a decade ago, Morsell discovered that the company was failing to provide federal agencies the discounts it made available to other customers.

Gen Digital is the latest in a long line of federal contractors whose misconduct has been punished through what are known as qui tam lawsuits. (Qui tam is derived from a Latin phrase meaning “who sues on behalf of the king as well as for himself.”) These are cases enabled by the False Claims Act in which someone with information about fraud against a public entity can file a suit on behalf of the government. The practice in the U.S. dates back to the Civil War era.

In many situations, the Justice Department will choose to intervene in the matter, in effect taking over the prosecution, but the whistleblower is typically awarded a portion of the damages or settlement. A large portion of the more than 2,500 False Claims Act cases documented in the Violation Tracker database, which account for $60 billion in penalties, began as qui tam actions.

Federal prosecutors do not intervene in every whistleblower case. Given that the plaintiff may not have the resources to pursue the matter independently, most of these cases end up being dropped. Yet substantial settlements are sometimes achieved without government involvement, though the feds share in the proceeds. Here are some examples.

  • In 2022 State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. agreed to pay $100 million to settle allegations it violated the False Claims Act in connection with claims improperly submitted to the National Flood Insurance Program after Hurricane Katrina.
  • In 2011 Medline Industries agreed to pay $85 million to settle allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by paying illegal kickbacks to healthcare providers who purchased its medical supplies using federal funds.
  • In 2019 Teva Pharmaceuticals agreed to pay $54 million to settle allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by using speaker events to provide improper compensation to doctors to induce them to prescribe its products.
  • In 2016 Novartis agreed to pay $35 million to settle allegations it violated the False Claims Act by marketing the eczema cream Elidel for use on infants, even though it was only approved for older patients.
  • Also in 2016, Ocwen Loan Servicing agreed to pay $30 million to settle allegations that two of its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by submitting incorrect information to the Treasury Department’s Home Affordable Modification Program.
  • In 2019 Myriad Genetics agreed to pay $9.1 million to settle allegations it violated the False Claims Act in connection with improper billings submitted to Medicare for hereditary cancer screening.
  • In 2014 Smith & Nephew agreed to pay over $8 million to settle allegations it violated the False Claims Act by providing medical equipment to Veterans Administration patients it claimed was made in the United States but which was actually produced in Malaysia.

Successful qui tam cases have become so common that it is easy to take them for granted and assume that this practice is widespread in other countries. That is not the case, even in the United Kingdom, where the practice originated centuries ago but later fell into disuse.

This could change. In February, Nick Ephgrave, the director of the UK’s Serious Fraud Office gave a speech in which he endorsed the idea of compensating whistleblowers. Such a move would give a major boost to the prosecution of procurement fraud in the UK, which lags far behind the United States in dealing with this perennial problem.

Back here, the legal status of whistleblowers has been strengthened even as the power of regulatory agencies has been challenged. This applies both to False Claims Act cases and those brought under other laws with whistleblower provisions, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that whistleblowers seeking compensation after being fired for exposing misconduct do not need to prove an employer acted with retaliatory intent.

The U.S. has a long and impressive history of using qui tam whistleblower cases to fight corporate fraud against the public. The UK would do well to revive its own use of this effective tool.