Conspired to Defraud Uncle Sam? Be Very Afraid. We’re Gonna Put You in Home Confinement!

Posted: 9:40 am EDT
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Remember the USAID nonprofit contractor IRD? (See Dear USAID OIG — That Nonprofit Contractor Mess Really Needs a Fact Sheet). Well, here’s another one.  This is a case where the CEO of a major USAID contractor gets feather-slapped by the court.

A 2011 ranking of private USAID partners by devex.com lists LBG as the third largest USAID private-sector partner that has contracted some of the government’s largest post-conflict redevelopment projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Bloomberg, Louis Berger International, a unit of Louis Berger Group, got about $736 million to modernize a power system and rehabilitate the Kajakai Dam in Afghanistan.  Whoa! We thought that dam only cost $305.5 million! Plus cost of fuel that  US taxpayers also had to shoulder.

What is missing from this announcement? How much was the total contracts that LBG received in the last 20 years? Who’s paying the independent monitor? And for heaven’s sake, what lessons are we sending to other reconstruction capitalists doing awesome work for love of god and country?

Via USDOJ:

The former president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of a New Jersey-based international engineering consulting company was sentenced today to 12 months of home confinement and fined $4.5 million for conspiring to defraud the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with respect to billions of dollars in contracts over a nearly 20-year period, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.

Derish Wolff, 79, of Bernardsville, New Jersey, previously pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Anne E. Thompson to a superseding information charging conspiracy to defraud the government with respect to claims. Judge Thompson imposed the sentence today in Trenton federal court.

According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:

Wolff, the former president and CEO of Morristown, New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group Inc. (LBG), and the former chairman of LBG’s parent company, Berger Group Holdings Inc. (BGH), led a conspiracy to defraud USAID by billing the agency on so-called “cost-reimbursable” contracts – including hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts for reconstructive work in Iraq and Afghanistan – for LBG’s overhead and other indirect costs at falsely inflated rates.

USAID, an independent federal government agency that advances U.S. foreign policy by supporting economic growth, agriculture, trade, global health, democracy, and humanitarian assistance in developing countries, including countries destabilized by violent conflict, awarded LBG hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in other nations. LBG calculated certain overhead rates and charged USAID and other federal agencies these rates on cost-reimbursable contracts, which enabled LBG to pass on their overhead costs to the agency in general proportion to how much labor LBG devoted to the government contracts.

From at least 1990 through July 2009, LBG, through Wolff and other former executives, intentionally overbilled USAID in connection with these cost-reimbursable contracts. The scheme to defraud the government was carried out by numerous LBG employees at the direction of Wolff.

Wolff targeted a particular overhead rate, irrespective of what the actual rate was, and ordered his subordinates to achieve that target rate through a variety of fraudulent means. From at least as early as 1990 through 2000, Wolff ordered LBG’s assistant controller to instruct the accounting department to pad its time sheets with hours ostensibly devoted to federal government projects when it had not actually worked on such projects.

At an LBG annual meeting in September 2001, Salvatore Pepe, who was then the controller and eventually became chief financial officer (CFO), presented a USAID overhead rate that was significantly below Wolff’s target. In response, Wolff denounced Pepe, called him an “assassin” of the overhead rate and ordered him to target a rate above 140 percent, meaning that for every dollar of labor devoted to a USAID contract, LBG would receive an additional $1.40 in overhead expenses supposedly incurred by LBG.

In response, Pepe and former controller Precy Pellettieri, with Wolff’s supervision, hatched a fraudulent scheme from 2003 through 2007 to systematically reclassify the work hours of LBG’s corporate employees, including high-ranking executives and employees in the general accounting division, to make it appear as if those employees worked on federal projects when they did not. At his plea hearing on Dec. 12, 2014, Wolff admitted that Pepe and Pellettieri, at Wolff’s direction, reclassified these hours without the employees’ knowledge and without investigating whether the employees had correctly accounted for their time, and at times did so over an employee’s objection.

In addition to padding employees’ work hours with fake hours supposedly devoted to USAID work, Wolff instructed his subordinates to charge all commonly shared overhead expenses, such as rent, at LBG’s Washington, D.C., office to an account created to capture USAID-related expenses, even though the D.C. office supported many projects unrelated to USAID or other federal government agencies.

On Nov. 5, 2010, Pepe and Pellettieri both pleaded guilty before then-U.S. Magistrate Judge Patty Shwartz to separate informations charging them with conspiring to defraud the government with respect to claims. Also on that date, LBG resolved criminal and civil fraud charges related to Wolff’s and others’ conduct. The components of the settlement included:

  • a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), pursuant to which the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey suspended prosecution of a criminal complaint charging LBG with a violation of the Major Fraud Statute; in exchange, LBG agreed, among other things, to pay $18.7 million in related criminal penalties; make full restitution to USAID; adopt effective standards of conduct, internal controls systems, and ethics training programs for employees; and employ an independent monitor who would evaluate and oversee the company’s compliance with the DPA for a two-year period;
  • a civil settlement that required the company to pay the government $50.6 million to resolve allegations that LBG violated the False Claims Act by charging inflated overhead rates that were used for invoicing on government contracts; and an administrative agreement between LBG and USAID, which was the primary victim of the fraudulent scheme.

In the settlement, the government took into consideration LBG’s cooperation with the investigation and the fact that those responsible for the wrongdoing were no longer associated with the company.

Click here for the original announcement (pdf).

 

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Dear USAID OIG — That Nonprofit Contractor Mess Really Needs a Fact Sheet

Posted: 1:23  am EDT
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We’ve used the USAID OIG website but it does not have a smart nor responsive search function. We wanted to know how many inspections, audits, whatev reports the Office of the Inspector General at USAID did on IRD over the years.  If they were rigorous in their oversight and, if USAID and the State Department did anything about it. That is an important component to this story.  And if that is true, we wanted to see just how rigorous is the OIG’s oversight based on the documents it put out through the years, because how else can we tell but by the number and quality of their output?

We sent a direct message to USAID OIG via Twitter and we got a response back:

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For specific inquiries, please contact our office directly http://oig.usaid.gov/content/contact-usaid-oig

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You click on that link and you’re told that “for media or general information inquiries, contact the OIG’s Immediate Office by mail, telephone, or fax. Whoa!  The Immediate Office, apparently, is not immediate enough.

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Late last year, following a Washington Post report on a USAID program in Pakistan, USAID OIG released (pdf) a statement with the following:

OIG is committed to providing products and information that are responsive to the needs of external customers and stakeholders. In responding to questions posed by Members of Congress and congressional staff, OIG has always endeavored to provide complete and accurate information based on the documentation and information available to us.

This is USAID’s largest nonprofit contractor.  According to WaPo, USAID suspended IRD this past January from receiving any more federal work. The suspension came in the wake of allegations of misspending highlighted in a Post investigation in May 2014.  USAID told the Post that they are cracking down on contractors who misspend tax money.

Hookay. So let’s start with finding out what type of oversight USAID OIG provided on IRD contracts since 2006. This is one time when those USAID OIG Fact Sheets would really be helpful.

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Related items:

USAID Suspends Big Contractor IRD: What Took So Long? (NonProfit Quarterly)

Doing well by doing good: The high price of working in war zones (WaPo, May 2014)

 

USAID Afghanistan — SIGAR, OIG Investigates Second Largest Recipient of Reconstruction Funds

— Domani Spero  

Via SIGAR — Snapshot of Top Ten Recipients of USAID Funds in Afghanistan Reconstruction (2002-2013):

Our analysis of USAID data indicated that the top ten implementing partners in total awards accounted for about $7.7 billion, or 58 percent of total obligations. The remaining 42 percent of obligations were awarded to a total of 193 implementers who averaged $29 million in total awards. The World Bank was the top overall recipient of USAID funds in Afghanistan, with total awards equal to approximately $1.75 billion. USAID provided $1.74 billion to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which is administered by the World Bank, and awarded the Bank a $2 million grant for a project supporting business environment reform in Afghanistan. International Relief and Development, Inc. (IRD) received the second highest amount of total rewards at approximately $1.1 billion. Table 2 shows the top ten recipients by total obligation as reported by USAID. Figure 3 demonstrates the percentage of total USAID reconstruction awards received by each of the top ten recipients.

via SIGAR

via SIGAR

Via SIGAR

Via SIGAR

 

International Relief and Development, Inc. (IRD), number #2 on the list above is the subject of a recent WaPo investigation on Big budgets, little oversight in war zones. Quick notes from the report:

  • International Relief and Development increased its annual revenue from $1.2 million to $706 million, most of it from the USAID.
  • The nonprofit rewarded its employees with generous salaries and millions in bonuses. 38 IRD employees received more than $3.4 million in bonuses during the same period, according to the company’s tax filings.
  • IRD’s impressive board of advisers included former House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt and John D. Negroponte, who served as ambassador to several countries, including Iraq, and was the nation’s first director of national intelligence.
  • The company hired an all-star cast of humanitarian officials, drafting them from the top levels of USAID. In addition to the former acting administrator, the officials have included the deputy assistant administrator, the director of contracts and a key operations officer. According to WaPo, it has hired at least 19 employees from USAID. “Several of them came directly from their desks at the agency to occupy important posts at the company.”
  • As acting director of USAID, Alonzo Fulgham made $199,418. As vice president of IRD, he received $330,000. Jeffrey Grieco made $185,000 as the top public affairs official at USAID. As chief of public affairs at IRD, he received $225,000.

According to WaPo, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko had opened an investigation into allegations of “significant waste and mismanagement” and “kickbacks and bribery by IRD senior employees over a road project, which wound up costing $317 million.

We understand that SIGAR is also investigating IRD for  attempting to “use confidentiality agreements as a way of prohibiting its employees from making critical statements about IRD to “funding agencies” or “officials of any
government.” 

Via WaPo:
Some of the people who might know the most about what has happened with IRD-run programs — former company employees — say they have been barred from speaking about their experiences. Before leaving IRD, they said, they were asked to sign confidentiality agreements.

The agreements warn employees that they could be sued for making any “derogatory, disparaging, negative, critical or defamatory statements” about IRD to anyone, including “funding agencies” or “officials of any government.” Lawyers who reviewed the agreements at the request of The Post said it appeared that they could violate federal protections afforded to whistleblowers under the False Claims Act.

[Read a copy of the confidentiality agreement.]

In a letter to IRD, SIGAR Sopko writes that “IRD’s policy of prohibiting employees fiom informing government officials of critical information appears to violate the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-3733, federal whistleblower statutes, and the Federal Acquisition Regulation. … The threat of retaliation for reporting problems to oversight agencies is all too real. I am simply not willing to tolerate an attempt to institutionalize employee intimidation. Therefore, I am initiating an inquiry into these allegations.”

SIGAR had also asked USAID to consider inserting a provision in all future contracts, cooperative agreements, and grant agreements for Afghanistan reconstruction that forbids the recipients of federal funds from using confidentiality agreements that prohibit their employees from talking to U.S. government officials.

Meanwhile at USAID/OIG — a “well-placed government source” told devex.com that the agency’s watchdog has been conducting an investigation into IRD for “months.” Devex.com reports that Bill Pierce, who serves as a spokesperson for IRD, told Devex that he was not aware of an OIG investigation that had been going on for months. 

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