On Monday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that bonding companies can be held liable for treble damages under the False Claims Act for issuing surety bonds to construction companies that falsely claim to be a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB).
In a novel reverse False Claims Act case, whistleblower Andrew Scollick alleged that the bonding companies “knew or should have known” the construction companies were shell companies acting as a front for larger non-veteran owned entities violating the government’s contracting requirements.
A reverse false claim action can occur when defendants knowingly make a false statement in order to avoid having to pay the government when payment is otherwise due in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(G) (reverse false claims). See United States ex. rel. Scollick v. Narula, Case No: 14-cv-01339-RCL (District Court, District of Columbia. July 31, 2017).
Under the Miller Act, government construction contractors must post bid bonds, performance bonds, and payment bonds that guarantee that the contractor will perform the work according to the terms of the contract. In this case, the contract terms required that the construction be performed by a SDVOSB entity. Michael Kohn, of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, who represents the whistleblower, argued that given their role in providing a surety bond to the contractor the bonding companies would know whether the invoicing being billed against the contract is being performed by a SDVOSB. The district court agreed and found that a “reverse false claims” violation occurred because the bonding company knew or should have known that the construction organization was not a SDVOSB and the act of issuing surety bonds furthered the fraud. As a result, the bonding companies were held legally obligated to return to the government funds the bonding company knew to be paid to contractor firms fraudulently posing as SDVOSBs. Being held liable under the False Claims Act means that treble damages will be awarded for every dollar up to the amount of the bond that the government paid out under each contract.
Because of the substantial dollar amounts involved, it is not all that uncommon for contractors to falsify service-disabled veteran status. Holding bonding companies liable when they have reason to know of the fraud could have an immense impact on stamping out such contract fraud. “Holding bonding companies liable for treble damages in these types of case will have a huge impact on preventing fraud in government contracts and will help ensure these contracts go to disabled veteran-owned companies as intended,” said Kohn.
The Scollick case alleges that two of the largest surety bonding companies, Hanover Insurance Company and Hudson Insurance Company, knowingly bonded dozens of Veteran Administration construction contracts totaling more than $12.5 million with the knowledge that the bonded contractors did not qualify as service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses.