On September 22 the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington announced that a group of major government energy and construction contractors have agreed to pay the government a total of $57,750,000 to settle allegations that the companies violated the False Claims Act by charging the Department of Energy (DOE) for work that hadn’t been done. Starting in 2001, Bechtel National Inc., Bechtel Corporation (Bechtel), AECOM Energy & Construction, Inc. (AECOM), and their subsidiary Waste Treatment Completion Company, LLC (WTCC), had been contracted to build a multi-billion dollar radioactive Waste Treatment Plant (WTP). The WTP is located in Richland, Washington, and treats vast amounts of radioactive waste. The government alleges that the companies produced a pattern of fraudulent negligence when billing the hours of their craftspeople to the DOE.
A whistleblower complaint filed by four employees in 2017 alleges that AECOM and Bechtel knew inflated hours were being charged to the DOE but failed to stop it. In fact, the companies have admitted to knowing that they were billing the DOE for idle hours for years and did nothing.
In many False Claims Act settlements the companies settling with the government pay exorbitant fees in order to avoid admitting liability. In this case however, Bechtel and AECOM have made a Statement of Facts that outlines their misconduct. Between 2009 and 2019, Bechtel and AECOM admitted to knowingly allowing their workers to bill for idle time, sometimes “several hours” at a time. They also admitted “to failing to schedule and carry out adequate work to keep craft personnel sufficiently occupied and productive, resulting in excessive idle time.” They admitted to continuing this practice of overbilling even while they knew they were being investigated.
Bechtel and AECOM have also agreed to enter an independent corporate monitor agreement that will last for three years. The agreement requires them to pay for two full time positions for independent monitors who will have full access to their systems and meetings. While the monitors will be paid by the contracting companies, they will work directly for the United States and will report any suspicious activity they witness. Bechtel and AECOM stand to lose a further $10 million if they violate the terms of the monitoring agreement or provide any kind of false information.
Joseph H. Harrington, First Assistant Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington said that “Completing the WTP is not only critical to public safety and the environmental health of the Pacific Northwest, but is an urgent and critically important ongoing public health concern, which the DOE and the State of Washington have appropriately made a top priority. It is stunning that, for nearly a decade, Bechtel and AECOM chose to line their corporate pockets by diverting important taxpayer funds from this critically essential effort.”
The whistleblowers in this case exposed a clear pattern of fraud that affected the potential safety and wellbeing of a huge number of Americans, as the WTP treats dangerous and toxic waste. Under the False Claims Act, whistleblowers, or relators, can claim 10 to 30% of the total funds recovered by the government. For their part in bringing this fraud to light, they will collectively receive $13,750,000.