"Businessmen and companies that lie to get their hands on taxpayer money will be held accountable for their actions," said a U.S. Attorney. "When some people cheat, those who play by the rules are put at a disadvantage."
He was talking about Omega Protein Corp. and Omega Protein, Inc. (Omega), a leading producer of fish oil, specialty fishmeal and organic fish solubles that are used by aquaculture and livestock feed manufacturers.
In 2010, Omega Took out a $10 million government loan. As part of that process, it certified its compliance with all federal environmental laws to the Department of Commerce. Even at that time, however, Omega knew it was in noncompliance, the Justice Department alleges. In 2013, Omega pled guilty to knowingly violating the Clean Water Act between May 2008 and December 2010.
The criminal allegations were that over that entire period, Omega was unlawfully discharging pollutants into U.S. waters. Also, between April 2009 and September 2010, the company unlawfully discharged harmful quantities of oil into U.S. waters.
Since Omega knew it was violating the Clean Water Act, the government claimed, it knowingly and falsely certified its environmental compliance to get the government loan. That violated the federal False Claims Act, which prohibits fraud, waste or abuse in federal programs. Omega has agreed to settle the False Claims Act allegations for $1 million.
The False Claims Act also authorizes private individuals -- often employees of violating companies -- to file lawsuits on behalf of the government for false claims. When these lawsuits are successful, the whistleblower receives, as a reward, between 15 and 30 percent of any money recovered on the government's behalf.
This case was initiated by a former Omega employee who blew the whistle on the violation. The whistleblower will receive $200,000 out of the $1 million settlement.
On our blog, we often feature whistleblower awards in excess of $1 million, but this case is just as important. It helped enforce our environmental laws by refusing to allow a Clean Water Act violator to benefit from government programs while in violation of the law. Such cases also level the playing field for businesses that do comply with the law.
If you are in a position to blow the whistle on fraud, waste or abuse in a government program, you should talk to a lawyer experienced with whistleblowing. Not only will this protect your right to any recovery, but it could also minimize the risk that you would face illegal retaliation for doing what is right.