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Government Involvement in Qui Tam Actions

A qui tam action is brought to recover for fraud committed against the federal government. Although qui tam actions are usually brought by private citizens or entities, the federal government does play a role in a qui tam action. The extent of the government's involvement will vary from case to case, but typical examples are described below.

The Initial Investigation

A qui tam action is commenced with the filing of a complaint (a document that sets out the details of the wrongdoing or fraud that forms the basis of the action) with a federal District Court. A copy of the complaint is also served on the United States Attorney for the district, and on the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The complaint is filed and served "under seal," to prevent its contents from becoming public information.

After the complaint is served, the Department of Justice has a period of sixty days in which to make a preliminary investigation of the claim, and decide if it will participate in the lawsuit. The complaint remains under seal during this time. Since the service of the complaint may be the first time the government has any information regarding the fraud or other wrongdoing, the Department of Justice often will ask for additional time in which to investigate. Requests for additional time are usually granted, and it is not unusual for a preliminary investigation to take over a year.

The preliminary investigation is conducted by the Inspector General of the agency whose program or contract was the subject of the alleged fraud or wrongdoing.

Government Intervention

The government has several possible courses of action it may take after its preliminary investigation:

  • Join the lawsuit;
  • Decline to join the suit;
  • Pursue an alternate remedy, such as an administrative action;
  • Attempt to settle the case; or
  • Dismiss the complaint.

The government rarely attempts to dismiss the complaint. If it feels that the complaint should not be pursued, the government will merely decline to join in the lawsuit, although the False Claims Act gives the government the right to change its mind, and join the suit at a later date. The government may decline to join the suit for a number of reason -- for example, because it feels the case has no merit, or because it does not wish to allot the resources necessary to pursue the claim.

If the government decides to join in the case, it will take on the primary responsibility for investigating and pursuing the case. At this point, the government often limits the role of the party who originally brought the action, going forward.

If the Government Declines to Intervene

If the government decides not to join in the suit, the person who filed the action may continue the action. A private individual who pursues a qui tam action has the same rights to investigate the claim, and obtain information from the defendant just as the government would if it were participating.

A private individual who successfully pursues a qui tam action after the government declines to participate is entitled to a larger award than he or she would have received if the government had been involved.

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