The federal False Claims Act is a statute concerned with eliminating misspending and misrepresentations with regard to private use of public money. While many of our stories involve healthcare fraud claims under the FCA, a recent case stemming out of George Washington University, located in Washington D.C., highlights the need for potential whistleblowers to keep a constant eye out for fraudulent conduct – as it can occur in virtually any arena.
Take, for instance, the case of Lombardi v. George Washington University, filed recently in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The facts of Lombardi reveal alleged instances of fraud pertaining to the management of federal grant money, particularly in the context of domestic security and anti-terrorism efforts. More specifically, Lombardi involves allegations of unlawful retaliation in violation of Section 3730(h) of the Federal False Claims Act, which states that an employee, contactor or agent is entitled to the relief necessary to make that individual whole in the event of discharge, demotion or suspension. The provision also applies to acts of harassment, threats or discrimination. If retaliation is found, the employee may receive a reinstatement, two times the amount of back pay, interest on back pay, costs, fees and any other special damages incurred as a result of discrimination.
Background Allegations of the Lombardi Case
George Washington University is a recipient of federal grant money through the federal Global Anti-Terrorism Training Assistance project. The grant money was awarded to the Science Applications International, Corp., (“SAIC”), who then awarded the money to sub-contractor GWU based, according to the complaint, in part on the experience and background of plaintiff John Lombardi, who was chosen to lead the school’s Office of Homeland Security. (“OHS”)
As part of the OHS, Lombardi was responsible for securing funding sources for the various research centers and institutes on GW’s campus. Prior to his appointment at GW, Lombardi enjoyed an extensive career as a colonel in the U.S. Army and as director of the Pentagon’s Domestic Emergency Preparedness for Medical Programs. His experience and knowledge of homeland security issues made him the perfect fit for the mission of GATA and GW leaders allegedly used this to their advantage, despite having misgivings about his future with GW.
Allegations of Fraud Arise
GW restructured its Office of Homeland Security in 2011 to create two distinct entities: the Homeland Security Policy Institute and the Center for Preparedness and Resilience. In addition to his role as principal investigator and administrator for the SAIC sub-contract, Lombardi was now being asked to attract additional funding sources for these new entities. Shortly thereafter, according to the complaint, the assistant vice president of the Office of Homeland Security maneuvered himself to replace Lombardi as the principal lead of the SAIC sub-contract, despite failing to notify SAIC or the federal government of the replacement. According to Lombardi, this constitutes bait-and-switch type fraud by using Lombardi to attract contracts and then removing him from the project. By contrast, Lombardi’s replacement has no experience working with federal funding, training or emergency preparedness, except for nominal experience as a firefighter.
Lombardi claims that under the FCA, replacing him as lead under the federally-funded grant project works was a violation of not only the provisions of the grant, but the FCA’s prohibitions against submitting false claims to the U.S. for reimbursement.
Lombardi further contends that SAIC was alarmed by his replacement and concerned over his successor’s lack of experience, however it did nothing to intervene. Lombardi thereafter presented the situation to university officials, who similarly did not react. The Complaint states, three weeks later, Lombardi’s replacement fired him, ironically claiming there was no longer enough money to fund his position.
In his suit, Mr. Lombardi alleges unlawful retaliation in violation of the FCA and is seeking past and future lost wages, lost benefits, punitive damages and general damages for emotional distress.
Fraudulent Spending Can Appear Anywhere, and in Any Form
While healthcare misspending is at the forefront of FCA claims lately, do not think that fraudulent government spending cannot occur in virtually any facet involving federal money. Take this case, for instance, that did not involve overt waste or obvious theft, but involved a more subtle, yet possibly fraudulent, rearrangement of leadership in violation of the federal government’s directions with regard to its money. If you are aware of possible FCA violations, but aren’t sure, contact a reputable whistleblower attorney today.