On January 24, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington announced that it had filed a Complaint against Hanford Mission Integration Solutions, LLC (HMIS), alleging fraudulent labor overcharging at the Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford Nuclear Site.
The False Claim Act (FCA) allegations stem from a qui tam suit filed by Bradley Keever, a sprinkler fitter in the fire protection group at HMIS. The FCA’s qui tam provisions allow whistleblowers to file the lawsuits on behalf of the government. The government then has the option to intervene and take over the suit, as they did in this case. If the suit is successful, qui tam whistleblowers are entitled to 15-30% of the government’s recovery.
The Hanford Nuclear Site produced plutonium for nuclear weapons starting in the 1940s. In recent decades, the Hanford Site has become the focus of the nation’s largest environmental cleanup, including remediation and treatment of large quantities of radioactive and hazardous waste.
According to the government’s allegations, “between January 2021 and October 2023, HMIS engaged in a systemic and fraudulent overcharging of DOE for fire protection work at Hanford. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that HMIS fire protection personnel regularly experienced extensive and unreasonable idle time on a daily or near-daily basis, due to HMIS’ failure to schedule and carry out work for them to perform. The Complaint further alleges that, during this extensive idle time, HMIS fire protection personnel took naps, watched movies and television, and engaged in other personal activity not related to performing work. The Complaint alleges that HMIS supervisors and management were fully aware of this extensive and unreasonable idle time for its personnel, but, rather than take steps to address it, they encouraged and directed HMIS fire protection personnel to falsely and fraudulently charge this idle time to work codes associated with HMIS’ contract, passing on the costs associated with this extensive and unreasonable idle time to DOE by fraudulently and falsely representing that work had been performed.
The government further alleges that “HMIS’s systemic and pervasive overcharging and fraudulent billing resulted in millions of dollars in overcharges to DOE, and jeopardized the critical fire protection systems at Hanford because this extensive and unreasonable idle time occurred when there was, in fact, important fire protection work that could and should have been performed to safeguard the public, workers, and the environment from fire dangers, including during dangerous wildfire seasons.”
“Fire safety at Hanford is critical to the health of the public, workers, and the environment,” said United States Attorney Vanessa R. Waldref. “It is inexcusable to think that a well-paid contractor entrusted with this critical task to protect our community would fraudulently bill DOE for idle time spent watching movies and literally sleeping on the job, all while putting the public at risk when critical work went uncompleted. We will continue to work hand-in-glove with our law enforcement partners to end fraud and corruption at Hanford and support environmental remediation.”
On July 25, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the False Claims Amendments Act of 2023, which address a few technical loopholes undermining the success of the FCA. The bill is widely supported by whistleblower advocates.
“The False Claims Act is America’s number one fraud-fighting law,” said whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn. “These amendments are urgently needed to ensure that whistleblowers can continue to play their key role in protecting taxpayers from corporate criminals.”
Kohn sees the passage of the False Claims Amendments Act as one of the seven most urgently needed whistleblower reforms. National Whistleblower Center (NWC), where Kohn serves as Chairman of the Board, has issued an Action Alert calling on Congress to pass the bill.