The Minerals Management Service of the U. S. Department of Interior is responsible for the collection of royalties on federal and Indian leases. Companies who have such leases are required to report to the Department of Interior the value of natural gas produced (or minerals mined) from federal and Indian leases and to pay a percentage to the government as royalties. When the entity that has the duty to pay the royalties files a false report and misstates what the collected revenues were, this is a “reverse” false claim. It is “reversed” because the entity is not making a claim for payment but is instead paying less money than is owed to the government under false pretenses. This case, like any scheme to defraud the federal government, is actionable under the False Claims Act and fortunately, the Department of Justice is vigorously prosecuting cases where those who owe money to the government are willfully failing to pay it.
Yesterday, on August 15, the Department of Justice announced that Burlington Resources, Inc., a subsidiary of Conoco Phillips, had agreed to settle a False Claims Act case with the United States for $97.5 million. A whistleblower had filed a Complaint against Burlington alleging that it was systematically underpaying royalties due on their federal and Indian gas production. The Department of Justice intervened in the Qui Tam lawsuit, determined that the whistleblower’s allegations were true and correct and forced a settlement with Burlington Resources, Inc.
What this case shows is that the Federal False Claims Act continues to be the government’s best tool for obtaining restitution and penalties in cases where companies are failing to discharge their duties to the federal government. While schemes to defraud take a variety of forms, obviously, a company with a lease agreement with the United States has a fiduciary duty to properly account for royalties. By submitting false reports understating the amount of gas production, Burlington Resources, Inc. exposed itself to the whistleblower suit and presumably paid 2 to 3 times the amount of actual damages in penalties as provided for by the Federal False Claims Act.
As whistleblower attorneys, we are pleased that the Department of Justice secured this settlement on behalf of all taxpayers. Any company that underreports the payment of revenue owed to the government should be sanctioned as was Burlington Resources, Inc. The best way to sanction other companies who would defraud the federal government is for whistleblowers with inside information to come forward and to make sure that these dishonest companies are forced to do the right thing. It is regrettable that such whistleblower suits are necessary to force companies to do what is right but time and again we see evidence that informants with insider information are vital in insuring that federal contractors deal honestly with their government.