West Virginia False Claims Bill Under Attack

The chemical spill in Charleston that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 residents wasn’t more than a speed bump in West Virginia’s corporate lobby’s drive to kill off any law that protects the residents of the state.

With tens of thousands of residents still without access to clean water, Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce took to the airwaves in an effort to kill off a proposal to bring a False Claims law to the state.

Roberts told Talkline’s Hoppy Kercheval earlier this week that the proposal was nothing more than “a sue and settle scheme developed by the trial bar to try to expand the opportunity for lawsuits in West Virginia.”

“We are opposed to fraud too,” Roberts said. But the False Claims Act provision under consideration by the West Virginia legislature was “sponsored by a group of Trial Lawyers in the West Virginia House of Delegates and those who are endorsed by trial lawyers,” Roberts said.

“Under this bill a mistake can be characterized as fraud,” Roberts said. “The bar for proving fraud is very low. A person who has no personal knowledge of this fraud is allowed to bring an action. You and I could overhear a conversation in a restaurant and then go out and find a plaintiff’s lawyer and bring an action. And the party you bring an action against might want to settle because of the defense costs.”

“You sound like you are in panic mode Steve,” Kercheval said to Roberts.

“This has created a level of concern and excitement the likes of which I have not seen,” Roberts said. “This is a very controversial statute. It’s a trial lawyer enhancement process. We are very concerned about it.. . . .Let’s not jump in and pass another Affordable Care Act. Let’s not jump in another piece of legislation that nobody has read and nobody knows what’s in it.”

Patrick Burns of Taxpayers Against Fraud took issue with Roberts’ claims.

“Do lobbyists for corporate crooks oppose paying fines and restitution?” Burns told Corporate Crime Reporter. “ Of course. The fox is always opposed to anyone guarding the hen house.”

“The good news is if West Virginia wants to see a model for success, they only need look next door.”

“Virginia passed a state False Claims Act in 2002, and since then that state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit has returned an average of $228 million per year.”

“And that’s just in health care.”

“Virginia has also recovered millions of stolen dollars for its state pension fund, and is set to recover millions more for defective water pipe installed by municipalities. And Virginia is not alone.”

Twenty nine states now have state False Claims Acts, including Texas, Maryland, New York, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Florida.

Federal officials say that if West Virginia passes a state False Claims Act as strong as the federal act, it will give the state a 35% increase in Medicaid fraud settlements and awards under a law passed in 2005 and signed into law by President Bush.

“Meanwhile, West Virginia’s legislature is cutting essential services for taxpayers even as paid apologists for corporate liars, cheats, and thieves say they should not be held accountable for their actions,” Burns said. “That’s not just bad policy, that’s bad politics.”

“What’s particularly comical is when lobbyists for corporate fraudsters say state False Claims Act laws are ‘sue and settle’ legislation,” Burns said.

“Let’s be clear what that means:  It means that the standard of proof for bringing a False Claims Act case is so high that when the federal government or a state joins a case against a company, that company settles and pays up instead of going to trial because the company knows it was caught, and that the penalties will be even higher when they lose at trial,” Burns said.  ‘Sue and settle, in short, is a euphemism for ‘you got caught, and if you’re smart you will now button it up and pay up, rather than lawyer up.’”

“We encourage folks to read the legislation, something some opponents have yet to do,” Burns said.  “For example the naysayers seem unaware that under this law whistleblowers cannot sue the state, cannot file a claim based on a simple mistake, and cannot build a case on rumor.  State false claims acts are tools used by the state against corporate fraudsters. The law requires fraudsters to knowingly commit fraud, and whistleblowers bringing cases have to have substantial evidence in hand – emails, video tape, cashed checks, and contracts, for example – in order to demonstrate fraud.”

“The bottom line is that state False Claims Act laws are a proven success for states that pass them, and have been a boon to honest businesses in Virginia, Texas, New York, California, Florida, and across the nation.  When Democratic and Republican Governors and Attorney Generals across the nation are in unity about the fact that a law against fraud works, that’s not just something you can believe — that’s taxpayer money you can take to the bank.”

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