The U.S. government said it is intervening in a whistleblower’s False Claims Act lawsuit accusing a California architecture and engineering firm and others of conspiring to cheat the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) out of Hurricane Katrina disaster relief funds.
The lawsuit was filed against Los Angeles-based AECOM by Robert Romero, a project specialist for the company. Mr. Romero filed the complaint in 2015 under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which allow individuals and other private parties to sue on behalf of the federal government in cases of alleged fraud, waste, abuse, and other wrongdoing.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the government contracted AECOM to support Hurricane Katrina disaster response and recovery efforts by conducting site evaluations and preparing and reviewing damage and repair estimates.
Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast in August 2005, decimating parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and leaving much of New Orleans under deep water.
Charged with determining whether FEMA relief applicants were eligible for Public Assistance funds, AECOM personnel allegedly submitted false photographs, claimed damage to non-existent buildings, and exaggerated repair estimates to increase relief funding for applicants, some of whom allegedly conspired with the contractor or certified the false claims as accurate.
The DOJ said the company received more than $300 million from the federal government between 2005 and 2019. Investigators looking into the whistleblower allegations determined that AECOM knowingly submitted false claims for Public Assistance funds on behalf of applicants to FEMA from 2007 through 2013.
Additionally, the whistleblower lawsuit alleges that by 2011, AECOM management became aware of systemic fraud “concerning the provision of false and inaccurate information to FEMA but failed to notify the government,” the DOJ said.
Xavier University of Louisiana
Xavier University of Louisiana, one of the FEMA applicants named in the lawsuit, has agreed to pay the United States $12 million for its alleged role in submitting false and misleading repair estimates. Federal prosecutors alleged that Xavier improperly obtained Public Assistance funds for its gymnasium, student center, and electrical grid that substantially exceeded the amounts it was entitled to receive under program rules.
As part of the settlement, the university has agreed to cooperate with the federal investigation of AECOM, other parties, and any other related litigation.
Mr. Romero will receive a whistleblower award of 10%-25% of any judgment or settlement reached as a result of his False Claims Act lawsuit. The DOJ said that Mr. Romero already received an award of $2.3 million for the Xavier University settlement.
“FEMA plays a critical role in helping communities to recover from natural disasters,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “To ensure that FEMA can accomplish its mission and help those truly in need, the department will hold accountable those who seek to defraud FEMA by providing false information about their entitlement to assistance.”
Beasley Allen Whistleblower Litigation Team
Beasley Allen has a Whistleblower Litigation Team in place to handle False Claims Act (FCA) claims. Due to our firm’s heavy involvement in whistleblower litigation, there was a definite need for the creation of a team focusing on whistleblower cases. Fraud against the federal government has been and continues to be a huge problem, involving many industries in this country, and is usually rampant in the wake of disasters requiring federal assistance, such as major hurricanes, the BP oil spill, and as we have seen in recent months, the coronavirus pandemic. We expect the amount of fraud against the government to increase greatly during the coming months.
As we have consistently stated, whistleblowers are the key to exposing corporate wrongdoing and government fraud. A person who has first-hand knowledge of fraud or other wrongdoing may have a whistleblower case. Before you report suspected fraud or other wrongdoing – before you “blow the whistle” – it is important to make sure you have a valid claim and that you are prepared for what lies ahead. Beasley Allen’s group of lawyers dedicated to handling whistleblower cases can navigate you through the oftentimes risky and complex litigation.
Lawyers on our whistleblower litigation team are Lance Gould, Larry Golston, Lauren Miles, Leon Hampton, Leslie Pescia, Paul Evans and Tyner Helms. If you are aware of fraud being committed against the federal or state governments, you could be rewarded for reporting the fraud. If you have any questions about whether you qualify as a whistleblower, you can contact a lawyer at Beasley Allen for a free and confidential evaluation of your claim.