We frequently read in the mainstream media about “whistleblowers,” who, well, “blow the whistle” on schemes to cheat the federal government out of our tax dollars on some big billing scandal at a hospital chain, or by triple-billing on a defense contract, or the like. However, we don’t often see such stories in the higher ed biz.
Recently, though, the Maricopa County Community College district (“Maricopa”) agreed to repay over $4 million to settle charges that it submitted false claims to the Corporation for National and Community Service (“CNCS”) for AmeriCorps state and national grants.
Maricopa runs community colleges in and around Phoenix, Arizona.
The Federal False Claims Act, first enacted during the Civil War when President Lincoln got tired of paying for the same horse multiple times, allows citizens to sue on behalf of the government and get a share of any recovery. Lawyers call these cases Qui Tam cases, because individuals are allowed to take their claims to court and sue in the name of the government, which is all that Latin phrase means. If the government ultimately decides to join in, and collects money, the whistleblower, referred to as a “relator,” gets a share of whatever is collected.
Christine Hunt, a Maricopa employee, filed such a suit, and was just awarded $775,827 as her share for reporting the scam.
CNCS is an independent federal agency that administers AmeriCorps and other national service programs. According to the United States Department of Justice, Maricopa obtained AmeriCorps funding for Project Ayuda, a program designed to engage students in national service. According to the Department of Justice press release, students were required to meet certain service-hour goals to receive an AmeriCorps Education Award. The scheme, according to the Feds, was that Maricopa “improperly certified that students had completed the required number of service hours so that they would earn an education award.”
Since January 2009, the Department of Justice has recovered more than $23.2 billion through False Claims Act cases. During the fiscal year that ended last September 30, the government paid out $435 million to whistleblowers like Christine Hunt. Admittedly, most of those whistleblowers were not in higher education, but we can see that the allure of a big payout will encourage employees even in the ivy-covered walls of academia to report overpayments or downright fraud.
So college administrators everywhere, as if there were not enough to worry about, must now take every possible step to assure that government funds are only procured legitimately and used for legitimate educational purposes.