The Avanti Law Group: Under False Claims Actby Paula Warner The Avanti Group LLC
Constance Lyttle's job at AT&T slowly shifted from helping deaf people make phone calls, to assisting the efforts of foreign scam artists intent on ripping off Americans.
She refused to play along, and was eventually fired by AT&T, which was getting millions of dollars in government funds to run a scam-plagued system for relaying the calls of deaf people.
"I didn't have a college degree. There's not a lot of good jobs here" in the Mercer area, Ms. Lyttle, 56, said this month. "I had bills to pay, just like everybody else in America."
Her answer, ultimately, was to sue AT&T under the federal False Claims Act. That act allows an individual to sue on behalf of the government when he or she sees federal funds spent fraudulently.
Nationally, the act last year generated nearly $3 billion in settlements and judgments against those accused of fraud, most of which went back to the government, with the whistleblowers getting a share. Most of the big settlements came when federal attorneys opted to join the side of the whistleblower.
But until 2010, U.S. attorneys operating out of Pittsburgh stayed on the sidelines, never intervening for whistleblowers.
Then U.S. Attorney David Hickton decided to use federal investigators and attorneys to help some whistleblowers, including Ms. Lyttle. Mr. Hickton's attorneys have put federal muscle behind whistleblowers in five cases, whereas his predecessors in that office had never taken that step.
Now Pittsburgh is starting to become a bigger player in the multibillion-dollar False Claims Act arena, reeling in $9.95 million in recoveries for the government since 2010. With the settlement in November of Ms. Lyttle's claim, and a potential 2015 trial in a federal lawsuit against Downtown-based Education Management Corp., Pittsburgh is now considered friendly territory for whistleblower-filed cases.
"It's extremely unusual for a district of medium size, like the Western District of Pennsylvania, to become a national player in handling cases of this scope," said attorney Harry Litman, who was Pittsburgh's top federal prosecutor from 1998 to 2001, and now works as a private lawyer on False Claims Act cases, including one against EDMC. He said that Mr. Hickton's "office has become a national leader in the practice."
That's encouraging to attorneys who specialize in pursuing those who rip off Uncle Sam.
There are "large sums of money that the taxpayers are providing to the government to provide services," said Downtown attorney Andrew Stone. "We know there's no shortage of fraud."
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