Articles Posted in TARP Funds Fraud

When whistleblower attorneys bring a qui tam False Claims Act case, the most successful results usually occur when Government counsel and the whistleblower’s lawyers (Relator’s counsel) work together in what is known as the “public-private” partnership model.

This approach to qui tam cases allows the government to leverage its limited resources by calling on the resources provided by private attorneys. This is essentially a “joint prosecution effort, ” in which the government counsel and investigators can rely on Relator’s counsel at each stage,

–from the beginning of its investigation,

–to obtaining input for preparation of subpoenas for documentary evidence from the defendants,

–to review of evidence compiled by the government in response to subpoenas,

–to evaluation of the responses and explanations that defendants provide,

–to providing analyses and summaries of evidence rebutting the defendants’ factual arguments,

–to performing research that ultimately will be used by the government to rebut the defendants’ legal arguments,

–to performing damages calculations and marshaling arguments in support,

–to consulting with the government on negotiation strategies and steps to be taken to resolve the matter,

–and, finally, to try the case, or otherwise resolve the case.

The taxpaying members of the public are the beneficiaries of this joint effort, which allows the government both to stop and recover damages for fraud, as well as to make those who steal from taxpayers think twice.
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As we have written previously, the billions of “bailout” dollars to financial institutions through the TARP program inevitably would result in many fraud cases, including some by TARP whistleblowers.

Today, the SEC announced allegations of TARP fraud and securities fraud of more than $1.5 billion other violations against Lee B. Farkas, through his company Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp. (TBW).

According to the SEC, Farkas “sold more than $1.5 billion worth of fabricated or impaired mortgage loans and securities to Colonial Bank. Those loans and securities were falsely reported to the investing public as high-quality, liquid assets. Farkas also was responsible for a bogus equity investment that caused Colonial Bank to misrepresent that it had satisfied a prerequisite necessary to qualify for TARP funds. When Colonial Bank’s parent company – Colonial BancGroup, Inc. – issued a press release announcing it had obtained preliminary approval to receive $550 million in TARP funds, its stock price jumped 54 percent in the remaining two hours of trading, representing its largest one-day price increase since 1983.”

Perhaps the SEC is showing a new attitude after the Madoff debacle. Whistleblowers should soon be able to participate in the new SEC whistleblower program, which is part of the financial reform legislation now being hashed out in conference committee.

The SEC’s full release is reprinted below:
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Among the many 2009 changes to strengthen the False Claims Act is one whose impact is about to be experienced: greater use of “civil investigative demands” to gather evidence.

Civil investigative demands allow to government to require any person believed to have documents or information relevant to a False Claims Act investigation to do the following:

(A) to produce such documentary material for inspection and copying,

We have written previously about how the “Troubled Asset Relief Program” (TARP) that began with the financial meltdown in 2008 would undoubtedly beget fraud that may be actionable under the False Claims Act. The qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, the country’s major whistleblower law, allow whistleblowers (“relators”) who report fraud or false claims to share in the government’s recovery of damages.

Yesterday, the first TARP fraud criminal charges appeared. Federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District announced the arrest of Charles J. Antonucci, Sr., former President and Chief Executive Officer of The Park Avenue Bank.

The criminal complaint filed on March 13, as summarized by prosecutors, alleges “self-dealing, bank bribery, embezzlement of bank funds, and fraud, among others. ANTONUCCI also was alleged to have attempted to fraudulently obtain more than $11 million worth of taxpayer rescue funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. ANTONUCCI is the first defendant ever charged with attempting to defraud TARP. Additionally, ANTONUCCI was alleged to have used The Park Avenue Bank in a scheme to defraud two pastors of a Florida congregation out of more than $100,000 set aside to build a new church.”

Antonucci likely will not be the last former bank executive to have to surrender his passport and post bond. If it were not for the dearth of restrictions on permissible uses of TARP funds–which has provoked outrage as TARP recipients paid large bonuses–more TARP cases for “misuse” of TARP funds would have appeared by now. (We received many calls from potential TARP whistleblowers interested in bringing cases under the False Claims Act).

Nonetheless, Antonucci’s case alleges some of the more traditional types of fraud that will be prosecuted as they undoubtedly surface in the TARP program, especially as more TARP whistleblowers come forward.

With the billions used to fund TARP, those TARP whistleblowers may be motivated by the prospect of receiving 15-25% of money that the government recovers when the whistleblowers use the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act to pursue TARP fraud.

The government’s full announcement is reprinted below.
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Since the Madoff and Stanford schemes proved ruinous to so many investors, many have asked why the SEC has no meaningful “whistleblower” program to expose wrongdoing, a topic we have written about previously.

Perhaps Harry Markopolis’ voice is finally being heard, albeit faintly. Last week, the House Financial Services Committee approved legislation that would expand both whistleblower rewards and whistleblower protections, among other things.

Still, past experience with the False Claims Act and the IRS Whistleblower statute shows that the proposed rewards need to be beefed up to be effective.

The “Investor Protection Act of 2009” (excerpted below) also would increase the SEC’s budget and make other changes designed to strengthen enforcement.

The new rewards to whistleblowers would be up to 30% of monetary sanctions of more than $1 million:

“In any judicial or administrative action brought by the Commission under the securities laws that results in monetary sanctions exceeding $1,000,000, the Commission, under regulations prescribed by the Commission and subject to subsection (b), may pay an award or awards not exceeding an amount equal to 30 percent, in total, of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions to one or more whistleblowers who voluntarily provided original information to the Commission that led to the successful enforcement of the action.”

The proposed new whistleblower rewards are reminiscent of those under the new IRS Whistleblower Program, but need at least two corrections to be effective.

First, the current SEC bill creates no enforceable “right” to a reward–a defect that made the old IRS Whistleblower statute ineffective before it was amended in December 2006.

Second, there should be a minimum percentage of perhaps 15% for the SEC rewards; it should not be left at 0-30%, as the bill now reads. Who would risk a 1% (or even lower) reward? The False Claims Act only became effective after 1986 amendments increased rewards to at least 15% in most cases. The new IRS Whistleblower law is attracting whistleblowers left and right because it provides for a minimum of 15% in most instances.

The proposed SEC law has one advantage over the IRS version: The IRS law unfortunately omits protection of whistleblowers from retaliation, but the proposed SEC whistleblower provisions would provide a remedy similar to that furnished whistleblowers under the False Claims Act. Here is what the proposed bill states (in part):

“An employee, contractor, or agent prevailing in any action brought under subparagraph (B) shall be entitled to all relief necessary to make that employee, contractor, or agent whole, including reinstatement with the same seniority status that the employee, contractor, or agent would have had, but for the discrimination, 2 times the amount of back pay, with interest, and compensation for any special damages sustained as a result of the discrimination, including litigation costs, expert witness fees, and reasonable attorneys’ fees.”

The bill’s proposed SEC whistleblower language is below; the entire bill may be found here:
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Defrauding the government of taxpayer dollars has gotten tougher over the past five months.

Important changes to the nation’s primary anti-fraud statute, the False Claims Act, took effect on May 20, 2009, when the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009 became law.

Among the most significant changes, Congress clarified and corrected the False Claims Act by legislatively overruling certain court decisions that sought to limit the scope of the Act, including Allison Engine Co. v. United States ex rel. Sanders, 128 S. Ct. 2123 (2008); United States ex rel. Totten v. Bombardier Corp., 380 F.3d 488 (D.C. Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 544 U.S. 1032 (2005); and United States ex rel. DRC, Inc. v. Custer Battles, LLC, 376 F. Supp. 2d 617 (E.D. Va. 2005), rev’d, 562 F.3d 295 (4th Cir. 2009).

These important 2009 changes to the False Claims Act include the following:

1. The amendments expand the definition of “claim,” and fraud directed against government contractors, grantees and other recipients is now plainly covered by the law.

2. Funds administered by the United States government (such as in Iraq) are now protected.

3. Retaining overpayments of money from the government is now an explicit basis of liability, which will be a source of concern for health care providers, among others.

4. Liability for “conspiracy” to violate the Act is broader than before.

5. Protection of whistleblowers and others against “retaliation” now extends not only to “employees,” but also to “contractors” and “agents”; and persons other than “employers” potentially may be liable for retaliation.

6. In investigating, the government now has authority to use “Civil Investigative Demands” more broadly, and to share information more with state and local authorities and with whistleblowers/relators.

7. A standard definition of what is “material” now applies in False Claims Act cases.

8. The statute of limitations has been clarified to allow the government to assert its own claims, after the whistleblower (or “relator”) has filed a qui tam case under the False Claims Act.

Click here for a detailed discussion of the False Claims Act and the wave of new State False Claims Acts.

The amended False Claims Act is reprinted below, in its entirety:
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Outrage over misuse of public funds is a healthy reaction to those who cheat taxpayers. It can also create interesting bedfellows, as newly-introduced legislation in the House demonstrates.

HR 3571, aimed at “de-funding ACORN,” would ban federal contracts and most federal funds to any organization that “has filed a fraudulent form with any Federal or State regulatory agency,” among other things. (Complete bill is below.)

As. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) observed correctly, fraud by those who receive government funds involves much “bigger fish” than ACORN–and bigger dollar amounts of alleged fraud.

“We can’t have a situation where the laws of justice are applied to one organization and not to any of the others, particularly when there are organizations that are polluting water for our soldiers and electrocuting them.” Grayson presumably was referring to allegations that KBR’s performance of government contracts for our troops has caused soldiers to be electrocuted and otherwise endangered.

Rep. Grayson is on target. He saw these abuses as a lawyer vindicating the public’s interest in fighting fraud in pursuing qui tam whistleblower cases under the False Claims Act, the nation’s primary civil statute for combating fraud and false claims against the government.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Dan Issa (R-CA) appeared to agree with this principle–“abuse and fraud will not be tolerated,” as his spokeperson told ABC News.

Battling fraud against taxpayers can and should be a universal concern of both parties. Let’s see whether this bill is weakened by those who reap the most rewards from cheating the public. The full text of the proposed legislation is below:
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Since the Madoff and Stanford scandals, we have written about the calls for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to establish a meaningful whistleblower rewards program. Currently, no adequate incentives exist for whistleblowers to speak up when they might have a chance to stop large scale fraud and prevent the next Madoff or Stanford debacle. How much better off would so many Americans be if someone had exposed Madoff before he defrauded so many investors?

Forbes has run interesting column by Bill Singer, calling for a statute that apples “False Claims Act” whistleblower remedies to Wall Street. Why not protect investors from the massive losses that so many incurred? The current system obviously failed to do so. Harry Markopolis has described eloquently how the SEC could do so much better, and new SEC whistleblower rewards should make a huge difference.

We are already seeing the successes of another innovative law based on the same idea, the IRS Whistleblower Program. To stop those who would have you and I carry their share of the nation’s tax burden, private citizens are stepping forward with better and better information to provide to the IRS about significant tax cheating. The quality of the information that our clients are presenting is compelling, and some of it will help stop major abuses of the tax laws.
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In one of two prominent whistleblower cases in the news this week, whistleblower John Kopchinski will be awarded more than $50 million for his role in exposing improper “off-label marketing” of the drug Bextra by Pfizer. Other whistleblowers also will be rewarded because of this settlement. That settlement of $2.3 billion is the largest in history ($1 billion to settle False Claims Act allegations, and $1.3 billion in criminal fine and forfeiture).

As large as the Pfizer settlement is, the other whistleblower’s actions seem likely to lead to recovery of dollars that could dwarf this $2.3 billion settlement. UBS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld has lifted the shroud of secrecy from thousands of American taxpayers’ offshore accounts at UBS. He has given the IRS a foothold into recovering potentially many billions in unpaid taxes owed.

Yet Birkenfeld was recently sentenced to serve 40 months in federal prison for conspiracy to defraud the United States in a tax fraud scheme while at UBS. His conviction also calls into question his ability to receive a reward under the IRS Whistleblower Program from the billions to be collected by the IRS.

How could this happen?

There are tried and true steps lawyers representing whistleblowers must take to protect their clients from the risk of prosecution. This was one of the topics of the “IRS Whistleblower Boot Camp” panel discussion that I led this past March, with panelists including IRS Whistleblower Office Director Steve Whitlock–how to protect the whistleblower who has potential criminal liability, but who has valuable information.

If adequate protection cannot be obtained, often the whistleblower with real criminal exposure should choose not to go forward. If the information is important enough to the government, however, protection for the whistleblower often can be negotiated, so long as the whistleblower is truthful and forthcoming. As former federal prosecutors who have also defended clients in white collar criminal prosecutions, we have represented many clients in obtaining this type of protection.
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