This is that final part in a three part series that will analyze the legislation that sets the foundation for the bailout and provides the means for private litigants to come forward and provide an in-depth assessment setting forth the statutory provisions, processes and procedures that whistleblowers must comply with when disclosing information regarding the misuse of TARP and other stimulus funds. We have already discussed the Federal False Claims Act, creating qui tam actions, and the Bailout Bill creating the TARP programs and subsequent fraud. This final part addresses the whistleblower protections and procedures for invoking protection, as well as the procedural requirements for filing a qui tam lawsuit.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: Creating Whistleblower Protection
In early 2009, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“ARRA”), also known as the “Stimulus Act,” amending certain provisions in ESSA. Section 1553 of ARRA contains a broad whistleblower protection provision protecting whistleblowers who report misuse by “non-Federal employers” that received funds under ESSA or ARRA. See Pub. L. No. 111-5, 123 Stat. 115 § 1553 (2009). The purpose of including Section 1553 in ARRA was to ensure that Government funds were not mismanaged or misspent. Specifically, law prohibits non-federal employers from retaliating against an employee for reporting misuse of funds received by their non-federal employer as part of the stimulus or bailout.
The ARRA broadly defines a “non-Federal employer” as an employer that is a contractor, subcontractor, grantee, or recipient of covered funds, any professional organization, agent or licensee of the Federal government or any “person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer receiving covered funds,” any State or local governments receiving “covered funds”, or any contract or subcontractor of such State or local governments. Pub L. 111-5, 123 Stat. 115 § 1553(g)(4).
“Covered funds” are also broadly defined to include "any contract, grant, or other payment received by an non-federal employer if--(A) the Federal Government provides any portion of the money or property that is provided, requested, or demanded; and (B) at lease some of the funds are appropriated or other made available by this Act." Under this definition of "covered funds," TARP funds are included, so the whistleblower protection extends to claimants making disclosure under EESA.
The definition of an “employee” is exceedingly broad to include any “individual performing services on behalf of an employer.” Pub L. 111-5, 123 Stat. 115 § 1553(g)(3). This definition therefore includes not only employees, but also independent contractors of recipient non-federal employers, thus allowing nearly anyone in an organization to become a whistleblower.
The employee disclosure must be regarding information which the employee “reasonably believes” is evidence of:
• Gross mismanagement of an agency contract or grant relating to covered funds;
• A gross waste of covered funds;
• A substantial and specific danger to public health or safety related to the implementation or use of covered funds;
• An abuse of authority related to the implementation or use of covered funds; or
• a violation of law, rule, or regulation related to an agency contract or grant, awarded or issued relating to covered funds.
Protection is even extended to disclosures made in the ordinary course of the employee’s duties. Similar to other whistleblower statutes, the complainant-employee need not be correct about his belief, just that that belief be reasonable.
Obtaining Whistleblower Protection
However, in order to invoke protection under Section 1553, an employee must make the disclosure to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, “an inspector general, the Comptroller General, a member of Congress, a State or Federal regulatory or law enforcement agency, a person with supervisory authority over the employee, a court or grand jury, the head of a Federal agency, or their representatives,” and then there must be some form of retaliatory action from the employer as a result of disclosure to one of these entities. Because disclosure of wrongdoing can be made to a court, a complainant would be able to seek whistleblower protection after filing an qui tam action—if the employer engaged in a retaliatory action or reprisal.
After a retaliatory action, the whistleblowing employee must submit a written complaint to the inspector general of the federal agency administering the covered funds, file a complaint online through an online complaint form or call into the Fraud, Waste, and Abuse hotline. The inspector general has 180 days to review the complaint and complete an investigation, if it decides to pursue the matter. If the inspector general cannot complete the investigation within that time period, the investigation period can be extended up to an additional 180 days, with or without the complainant’s consent. After completion of the investigation, the inspector general issues a report to his agency head. The agency then has 30 days to issue an order awarding or denying any relief, such as reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, benefits, attorneys fees, and costs. Ordered relief must then be taken to the District Court to be enforced. At that time, the District Court has discretion to grant additional relief including injunctive relief, compensatory and exemplary damages, attorneys fees and costs. Review of all agency orders is also available directly through appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
If the agency issues an order denying relief, in whole or in part; has not issued an order within 210 days after the submission of the complaint; decides not to investigate; and there is no evidence of bad faith on the part of the complainant-employee, the complainant may bring a private action de novo against the employer for compensatory damages and any additional relief provided for in ESSA and the ARRA. Moreover, if the employee brings a private right of action, Section 1553 expressly provides a jury right in the de novo action.
In order to be successful on a claim, the whistleblower must prove that the protected disclosure was a “contributing factor” in the employer’s retaliation. Pub. L. No. 111-5. 123 Stat. 115 § 1553(c)(1)(A)(i). The ARRA specifies that in order to make this showing, the complainant must show that “the [employer] undertaking the reprisal knew of the disclosure” or that “the reprisal occurred within a time period of time after the disclosure such that a reasonable person could conclude that the disclosure was a contributing factor in the reprisal.” Id. § 1553(c)(1)(A)(ii).
There are several extraordinary measures in Section 1553, which set it apart from predecessor whistleblower statutes. First, rights under it are non-waiveable and cannot be subject to pre-dispute arbitration agreements, unlike the whistleblower provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Further, there is no express statute of limitations for a cause of action. Arguably, however, the default 4-year limitations period will be applicable. See 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) (providing a four-year statue of limitations for analogous causes of action). Additionally, this Section expressly states that it does not displace State laws providing additional whistleblower protection and relief, further allowing the qui tam relator to recover under both federal and state laws.
Bringing a Qui Tam Action
Remember, a qui tam relator is filing a suit on behalf of the United States. As such, a qui tam relator must follow certain procedural requirements, in addition to the ones imposed under Section 1553 of ARRA for whistleblower protection. A qui tam suit is initiated upon the filing of the complaint under seal for 60 days without service to the defendant, which means the complaint is unknown to the defendant. The purpose of this “blackout period” is to allow the Government time to (1) conduct its own investigation without the defendant’s knowledge and (2) to determine whether to intervene in the action. 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b).
Also, a copy of the complaint and a written disclosure statement is served on the U.S. Attorney and the Department of Justice. This written disclosure statement must contain “substantially all material evidence and information the person possesses.” 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(2). The purpose of this disclosure statement is to provide the Department of Justice with the information necessary to conduct a proper investigation that will allow it determine whether to intervene. It also provides the U.S. Attorney with the information required to determine whether it should pursue a criminal action against the defendant. The disclosure statement need not be filed simultaneously with the complaint, however it must be filed within a reasonably short period of time after. If the Department of Justice decides to intervene, it takes over the discovery and litigation process. If not, the qui tam action moves forth under the relator’s original action.
Undoubtedly, the massive amounts of Federal monies distributed under ESSA ($700 billion) and ARRA ($800 billion) coupled with the FCA and Section 1553 of ARRA will (and already have) lead to an influx of whistleblower tips and complaints. This means more federal enforcement activity, potentially subjecting bailout and stimulus recipients to civil and/or criminal liability for fraud, waste, error, and abuse.
The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 sets forth a detailed and complex program for receiving federal monies under TARP. The False Claims Act and subsequent amending acts of Congress, such as the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, provide sources of whistleblower protection for TARP fraud qui tam relators. The interplay between these various Acts further complicates the issues surrounding TARP. Because of the complexity of these issues, it is important to select a law firm that understands the nuances of these issues and can navigate these difficult legislative provisions.