If you do the math on a Washington Post story yesterday it turns out the paper reported on what amounts to 225 scandals.
The Justice Department told the Post there is a backlog of approximately 900 False Claims Act cases, and that the backlog could take years to unclog. Obviously the time involved can damage the ability to pursue even the most meritorious cases. Justice also told the Post that they reject about 75% of all filed FCA cases, and most of those have little merit. I would bet that quite a few of the cases rejected have some merit but why quibble over that? If there are 900 cases in the system and a quarter represent cases that should be pursued, that means there are 225 good cases of fraud stuck in a black hole.
That means we have not one scandal but as many as 225 scandals, because each such case deserves priority treatment the Justice Department simply does not have the resources to handle. These 225 cases have to be relatively big and they likely involve major contractors who can continue to commit fraud against the United States. Of the remaining 675 in which the Justice Department may investigate and see no merit, the inability to kick them back to private attorneys quickly does not help.
Private Attorneys would at least like to clear their own backlog but they would also like the chance to pursue some of those cases. Justice may have legitimate reasons not to pursue a case a private attorney might take a chance on, but if the case waited three years for an initial determination very few whistleblowers will still have the resources, time and ability to continue the fight even if they are right.
But the fact is, according to Justice there must be at least 225 cases that have merit. How can we let this continue? We know. We know by Justice’s own procedures that there must be some 225 cases of major fraud and nobody can even get to deal with them. That’s a pandemic of fraud and we are not fighting the disease. Within those 225 cases that means, important safety concerns and governmental functions are being undermined by unscrupulous contractors. The contractors who profit from fraud gain a competitive advantage and push out honest contractors who want to do good work. Fraud is very profitable and if you can get away with it provides a great competitive advantage. Right now you can get away with it.
These aren’t small cases. Nobody takes the trouble to file a False Claims Act case these days if they can’t find at least millions in damages because by the time the Relator gets their share, it does not leave much for what now appears to be years and years of legal work. Billions of dollars of fraud are lost this way. The whole point of the FCA is to punish and deter fraud. How do you deter fraudulent activity when it is clear to everybody that the Justice Department does not have the people power to stop it?
At least some of the fraud must compromise vital government activity. More and more contracts are being used to do what we used to think of as inherently governmental functions. The very mail room in the Justice Department where these cases arrive is run by a private contractor now. Its scary to think about how dependent national security is on private contractors who can commit fraud in this environment. It is also hard to think of anything that corrodes our basic faith in government more readily than the extensive nature of this fraudulent activity.
The Post story blew the whistle (if you will pardon the expression) on the problem, but who are we to blame? Certainly not the career Justice lawyers who are overworked beyond reason. Assistant United States Attorneys working on False Claims Cases have dockets of 60 cases. Open the file on each case and look at it and a whole week is gone. Main Justice has only 75 lawyers they can assign to these cases. The people trying to deal with these cases want to investigate the cases responsibly and they want to win even in a judicial environment hostile to whistleblowers. There are simply not enough attorneys and investigators to go around.
Justice has approximately the same number of attorneys working on these cases that they did in the early 1990s when far fewer cases were brought, far less government functions were handled by private contractors and when the kinds of cases were not generally as complicated or big. How do you investigate a fraud, which may have occurred in Afghanistan or Iraq? How does the same lawyer become an expert on Medicare regulations AND Defense contract procedures overnight?
Here’s a starting suggestion. Hire all the lawyers. There has never been a better time. The only area of law experiencing growth right now besides fraud is bankruptcy, so there should be plenty of attorneys looking for work. I don’t care if the Justice Department has to appoint special attorneys general to investigate one case or if they want to just take the first 750 resumes that come across the door, we have to do something. There are private law firms that have that many attorneys. Why is it so outrageous for the federal government to hire enough attorneys and investigators to deal with a serious issue of national importance, which would, if they did it save as opposed to cost tax money? We hear lots of talk about cutting waste fraud and abuse in an election year.
We don’t hear much talk of a bill to specifically expand Justice by enough lawyers and more investigators to fight fraud. What else could the government spend money on which would certainly return money to the taxpayer directly and also improve the quality of work done for the government? Here is a law that actually gives investigators and lawyers at least some chance of fighting fraud in a courtroom. Now if we could only get enough people involved in bringing the cases there we might be able to find out what is going on in those 225 scandals sitting on a shelf in a Government office.