OCTOBER 31, 2023. Dallas-based architecture and engineering firm, AECOM, has agreed to an $11.8 million settlement to resolve claims it violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by knowingly submitting false claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the replacement of several Louisiana educational facilities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act allowed FEMA to disperse funds to institutional applications, such as schools, with public assistance (PA) funding to repair or replace facilities damaged by the hurricane. Funding was specifically denoted for facility repairs unless repair costs exceeded 50% of the cost to replace the facility. In situations like this, full-replacement funding became available. A whistleblower brought this government contractor fraud to the government’s attention, earning a $2.4 million reward, or 20% of the settlement.
From 2006 to 2010, AECOM supported FEMA by serving as a technical assistance contractor, assisting recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. AECOM prepared PA funds requests for applicants. These applications provided information such as damage descriptions, cost estimates for repairs, as well as estimates for replacements. One of the project officers deployed to Louisiana by AECOM allegedly submitted fraudulent requests to FEMA on behalf of several educational facilities in New Orleans, including Xavier University’s gymnasium, student center, and electrical grid, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans’ St. Raphael Archangel School cafeteria. Furthermore, AECOM supervisors allegedly reviewed the fraudulent claims and did not correct them, despite the claims including “materially false” design, damage, and replacement eligibility descriptions. This led to applicants receiving PA funds exceeding FEMA limits, which occurred in some cases because the facility received replacement funding while only meeting repair requirements.
The Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General emphasized the importance of protecting FEMA against fraudsters, stating how the agency “plays an essential role in helping communities recover from natural disasters … [The] settlement sends a strong message that FEMA contractors, as well as funding recipients, must provide truthful and accurate information so that FEMA’s resources are used to help those truly in need.” These funds were recovered thanks to the bravery of whistleblower Robert Romero, who brought a lawsuit under the qui tam provisions of the FCA. Romero will receive over $2.4 million for his efforts.
If you would like to report government contractor fraud, you can contact attorneys at Tycko & Zavareei LLP. Eva Gunasekera and Renée Brooker are former officials of the United States Department of Justice and prosecuted whistleblower cases under the False Claims Act. Renée served as Assistant Director at the United States Department of Justice, the office that supervises False Claims Act cases in all 94 United States District Courts. Eva was the Senior Counsel for Health Care Fraud. Eva and Renée now represent whistleblowers. For a free consultation, you can contact Renée at [email protected] (tel.: 202-417-3664) or contact Eva Gunasekera at [email protected]. You can also go to Tycko & Zavareei LLP’s website for whistleblowers to learn more at www.fraudfighters.net.