Seventeen-year battle in DC qui tam comes to an end with settlement

by Ben Vernia | March 20th, 2012

The Department of Justice announced a settlement in what is surely one of the longest-running qui tam suits in history, U.S. ex rel. Miller v. Bill Harbert Int’l Const., Inc., filed in the District of Columbia in 1995. Nine reported decisions document the long, long road to a conclusion in the case, plus an additional eight unreported decisions on Westlaw. The docket for the case runs to 1170 numbered filings.

According to DOJ’s press release:

Harbert Corporation, Harbert International, Inc., Bill Harbert International Constructions Inc., Harbert Construction Services (U.K.) Ltd. and Bilhar International Establishment have agreed to pay the United States $47 million to settle claims that they submitted false claims, and caused others to submit false claims, to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Justice Department announced today.

The settlement resolves claims under the False Claims Act that the Harbert entities conspired to rig the bids on a USAID-funded construction contract that was bid and performed in Cairo, Egypt, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Harbert International Inc. was part of a joint venture that bid on, and was ultimately awarded, Contract 20A to build a sewer system. The United States alleges that various Harbert entities entered into agreements with other potential bidders on Contract 20A to ensure that the joint venture would win the bid. The United States contends that other potential bidders agreed to either not bid or bid intentionally high in return for a payoff. The United States previously obtained a judgment against Harbert Construction Services (U.K.) Ltd. and Bilhar International Establishment on these claims.

“Attempts to collude or rig bids undermine the integrity of the government contracting process,” said Stuart F. Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division. “As this case demonstrates, we will take action against those who seek to abuse that process and pad their profits at taxpayer expense.”

“This case demonstrates our endurance in the fight against corporations that attempt to defraud the government,” said Vincent H. Cohen, Jr., Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia “Two decades after a bid-rigging conspiracy corrupted a massive construction project in Egypt, we have obtained a $47 million settlement on behalf of the American taxpayer. Our resolve in this matter should serve as a warning to other contractors who are thinking about abusing the contracting process.”

The allegations that the Harbert entities conspired to rig the bidding on the contract were first made in a lawsuit that whistleblower Richard F. Miller filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1995. Under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, private citizens may file actions on behalf of the United States alleging the submission of false claims and share in any recovery. The claims settled by this agreement against Harbert Corporation, Harbert International Inc., and Bill Harbert International Constructions Inc. are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.

The government did not announce the relator’s share in the case.

What’s the new oldest qui tam case? A good candidate is U.S. ex rel. El-Amin v. George Wash. Univ., also filed in D.C. in 1995 (but, according to the docket numbers, after the Miller case was filed). The docket in El-Amin is a paltry 770 numbered documents long, however.

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