The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans (Archdiocese of New Orleans) has agreed to pay more than $1 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by knowingly submitting false claims for payment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the repair or replacement of certain facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The settlement, which is based on the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ financial condition, required final approval of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, which approved the settlement on Oct. 26.
“FEMA offers critical financial support when natural disasters strike,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that these taxpayer funds are properly spent to help disaster victims rebuild their communities.”
The settlement resolves allegations that, from 2007 through 2013, the Archdiocese of New Orleans knowingly signed certifications for FEMA funding that contained false or fraudulent damage descriptions and repair estimates that were prepared by AECOM, an architecture and engineering firm based in Los Angeles. Among other things, the alleged false descriptions included purported damage to a nonexistent central air conditioning unit and misstated a facility’s square footage.
“Federal disaster funds are an instrumental component in the effort to assist disaster victims with their recovery,” said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana. “The favorable resolution of this False Claims Act matter illustrates the collaborative efforts and firm commitment by our federal partners to use all available remedies to address signs of fraud, waste and abuse.”
“Funds fraudulently obtained from FEMA deprive deserving recipients and communities truly in need,” said Inspector General Dr. Joseph V. Cuffari for Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG). “We appreciate the support of our law enforcement partners, and this outcome is another example of the continuing successful partnership between the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, the Department of Justice’s Civil Litigation Branch in Washington, DC and the Eastern District of Louisiana’s U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
The settlement resolved allegations originally filed in a lawsuit brought under the qui tam or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act by Robert Romero, an AECOM Project Specialist. The False Claims Act permits private parties to file suit on behalf of the United States for false claims and to share in any recovery. The False Claims Act also permits the United States to intervene in such an action, as it did in this case, in part, against AECOM, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and other disaster relief applicants in June 2020. One of those applicants, Xavier University of Louisiana, previously agreed to pay the United States $12 million to resolve its alleged role in the submission of false and misleading repair estimates prepared on its behalf by AECOM. The lawsuit against AECOM and another disaster relief applicant remains ongoing. As part of its settlement, the Archdiocese of New Orleans agreed to cooperate in the litigation.
The whistleblower lawsuit is captioned United States ex rel. Robert Romero v. AECOM, Inc., et al., No. 16-cv-15092 (E.D. La.). As part of the settlement with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Mr. Romero received approximately $199,500.
The False Claims Act lawsuit is being handled by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana, with assistance from FEMA’s Office of Chief Counsel. Investigative support is being provided by DHS OIG, through its Major Fraud and Corruption Unit and New Orleans Resident Office.
The claims alleged in the lawsuit, including those resolved by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.