Rat Out The Frauds

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The Sun-Sentinel
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 22, 2001
Editorial

Forget all the money you might make going on television shows like Survivor, The Weakest Link, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. You can earn much more fighting for truth, justice and the American way — and you won’t have to eat worms or answer stupid questions.

Under the United States and Florida False Claims Acts (”Qui Tam” in legalese), if your employer rips the government off, you can rat on him and collect a hefty percentage of all the dough that’s recovered. We could be talking millions. You might never have to work again, and you’ll be a hero for making a bad guy ante up.

In Tampa, in March, Gwendolyn Cavanaugh and Virginia Lanford hit it really big for exposing their boss’s skulduggery. Suing under federal law, they and their Fort Lauderdale attorney, Kenneth J. Nolan, were awarded $8.2 million after they proved that Vencor, a national health care chain, padded its reports to the tune of $54.68 million to get bigger reimbursement checks from Medicare. Cavanaugh and Lanford refused to keep quiet when their supervisors told them not to be concerned, so they filed suit and quit their jobs.

In Broward, in 1999, former Nova Southeastern University professor Alan Kent, another of Nolan’s whistleblowing clients, bagged $538,780. After reporting the university to the FBI for overbilling Medicaid, Medicare and other government programs in its mental health centers around Broward, he sued under state and federal laws. NSU had to repay $4.2 million in cash and in-kind psychological services.

As seductive as the money might appear, Nolan contends that those who file false claims and whistleblower suits are not primarily enticed by dollar signs. “People come to me because they are hurt, disillusioned, and angry. Most have been fired because they refused to sit by and condone illegal actions. They are motivated by outrage, not greed.” Unfortunately, there aren’t enough Cavanaughs, Lanfords and Kents in Florida — or enough good laws under which they can sue. We need an army of double-crossers, stool pigeons and informers to nail scurrilous elected officials, government employees and companies doing business with state, county and municipal agencies; and we need to amend existing laws and pass new ones to encourage more whistleblowing and give greater financial rewards to plaintiffs and lawyers.

First, the Florida False Claims Act should be revised to allow state employees to squeal on businesses defrauding the government and to collect a percentage of the recovered funds. The savings to taxpayers would be tens of millions of dollars.

Second, whistleblowers who win cases that do not involve the state’s recovering money — like proving that an elected official steered a no-bid contract to cronies or that a fellow employee stole public property — should be entitled to cash awards, and their attorney should qualify for double or triple fees. They usually sue after they have been fired for exposing something unsavory, but, under existing law, they can win only attorneys fees, lost pay, and reinstatement in their job, to which they really can’t return. They and their lawyers should be generously rewarded for taking big personal risks in the public interest.

Third, every Florida county and city should pass false claims acts that allow anyone to sue and whistleblower statutes that permit financial awards beyond compensatory damages. South Florida’s most notorious land deals would never have been finagled if such laws had existed in the past.

At the end of every television game show, a single surviving contestant hits the jackpot, but the public gets nothing out of it. At the end of every successful “Qui Tam” lawsuit, the good guys win — but the public actually benefits the most. Tell your elected officials to rewrite and enact sweeping false claims and whistleblower laws, and, when you catch someone cheating, have the guts to make a stink — and even sue. You may be the strongest link and walk away a millionaire. But, win or lose, you will have done what’s right. And, in the end, that’s got to mean more to you than all that money in your bank account.Stephen L. Goldstein, author and lecturer, is host of the Public Television show “Business Exchange,” Sunday on WLRN-Channel 17. E-mail him at trendsman@aol.com.