Investigator: Big money for reporting fraud

9:34 AM, Jun 1, 2011   |    comments
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They risk everything to protect your tax dollars from abuse, fraud and waste, often while avoiding the spotlight for fear of retaliation.

But the Investigator Tom Meyer has tracked down two whistleblowers to highlight their work as Ohio's attorney general is encouraging more insiders to come forward with evidence of fraud.

One of those whisteblowers is chemical engineer Pram Nguyen. He sued the city of Cleveland two years ago in U.S. District Court, claiming its annual use of more than 300,000 gallons of de-icing fluid and other chemicals at Hopkins International Airport violates the federal Clean Air Act.

The city declined to comment on pending litigation.

"The people who live near the airport should know how the emission is affecting them," said Nguyen. "The nature of the de-icing (fluid) has a lot of toxins in there."

That was news to Erica Gertz, who has lived near the airport for more than four years. She has grown used to the noise, exhaust and jet fuel that's associated with living near Hopkins, but she had never heard of possible problems with the de-icing fluid.

The fluid -- made up of propylene glycol, according to the lawsuit - is generally safe but can cause skin irritation if a person is exposed to it frequently, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine.

"That concerns me," said Gertz. "My daughter, she breaks out really bad and the doctors really don't know what it comes from. I'm going to tell the doctor about it the next time we see him."

Nguyen filed the lawsuit under the federal False Claims Act, which was created by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War as a way to encourage citizens to ferret out government fraud by awarding them up to 30 percent of whatever is recovered.

Under the act, the federal government can either take the case over from the whistleblower or let the whistleblower pursue it in court.

"When you do it, you know you will lose your job and everything, but you cannot keep silent because it's something very important not only for you but the next generation," said Nguyen.

Nguyen has used the so-called whistleblower law before.

In 1998, he accused Cleveland officials of misusing city vehicles that were bought with federal grant money specifically for air pollution control inspectors.

In the lawsuit, Nguyen claimed the city was assigning the cars to unauthorized individuals. Two years later, the city settled with the federal government for nearly $650,000.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine wants the state to adopt its own False Claims Act.

And why not? Since 1986, insiders have helped the federal government recover $18 billion in fraud. Nearly $3 billion has gone to whistleblowers for sticking their necks out.

"My experience has been, you need someone on the inside. Someone who is inside and literally blows the whistle," said DeWine.

Another whisteblower, who did not want to be identified, snitched on his company for paying kickbacks to local hospitals in return for buying heart-related equipment.

"I had worked at places where companies were absolutely committed to doing it right, getting business the right way and legally," the whisteblower said.

"Some of the things I observed (at the company where he worked while blowing the whistle) were suspect. There was some just egregious behavior and business practices that I observed."

The information he provided led to a nearly $4 million settlement from the company and the hospitals, including more than $600,000 that went to him. But he was ultimately fired by the company.  

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "The right thing was done. But there will be people that will probably be somewhat afraid to look at me for future employment."

Ohio lawmakers are currently debating the proposed state False Claims Act, but there likely won't be a vote until next month.

If it passes, Ohio would become the 28th state to have a whistleblower law.

But there is considerable opposition from businesses that fear they would be subject to frivolous lawsuits, officials said. That helped defeat a similar proposal a few years ago.  


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