Sarah Feinberg, a U.S. marine officer who served multiple combat tours in Iraq, was thrilled to join Booz Allen Hamilton, a prestigious company headquartered in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., which holds contracts worth $6.5 Billion annually with almost every U.S. federal agency.
Booz Allen, which touts as “one of the world’s most ethical businesses,” counts former U.S. Intelligence officials in its corporate officer. Feinberg was confident that she would fit in and, after taking a leave of absence to complete an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, she was promoted.
She made a discovery which would forever change the lives of her family.
Feinberg discovered what the Justice Department ultimately declared as a civil fraud scheme, under which Booz allen allegedly overcharged U.S. tax payers to subsidise its money-losing consulting contracts with private governments like Saudi Arabia. Booz Allen admitted to no wrongdoing after a year-long investigation. The company paid $377 million as part of a settlement. DOJ officials called it the third largest contract scam settlement in history.
Feinberg and attorneys received $69 million as a result of her filing a false claims act complaint during the Civil War. Feinberg’s share, which is around $40 million, before taxes, was deposited into her family’s bank account the week prior.
“I have three children, and I always tell them that doing the right thing is right, no matter the outcome,” said Feinberg. She is a volunteer treasurer in her Capitol Hill Church, who plans to donate at least $12,000,000 of her share. There are very few occasions in life when you will be rewarded for the right thing that you have done, but this one is unique.
After nine months of trying to convince Booz Allen executives, mostly older men, to stop what Feinberg called fraud, Feinberg – then 31 years old and pregnant with twins – took advantage of a little known ” Qui tam procedure that allows an insider, who is suing on behalf of the U.S., to recover between 15-30% of any settlements or judgments. She claimed she didn’t know she could make money by standing up for her principles until she quit Booz Allen.
Feinberg is not happy with the outcome, as she feels that prosecutors should have received a higher payment from Booz Allen. She believes that the company overcharged the taxpayers at least $500,000,000, as she claimed in her lawsuit.
Officials from the Justice Department disagree and say they received the best settlement possible. In a statement given to NBC News, they noted that Feinberg had approved the settlement, and agreed in writing that it was fair, adequate, and reasonable.
In a press release, Matthew Graves, U.S. attorney for D.C., said that “this settlement is one of largest procurement fraud settlements ever reached, and it shows the United States’ willingness to pursue even the biggest companies in the most complex cases where taxpayer money has been alleged stolen.”
Booz Allen refused to provide an executive for an interview. However, in a written statement, the company told NBC News it “has always believed that it acted legally and responsibly – guided by its strong and century-old culture based on ethics and accountability – and its position is consistently rooted in facts.”
In a statement, Booz Allen noted that the Justice Department had dropped a separate criminal investigation without charging anyone. According to filings by the company, a separate investigation of the Securities and Exchange Commission was also closed without any action.
According to court documents Lanny Breuer was one of the attorneys who represented Booz Allen. Breuer was the former head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division from 2009 to 2013. Daniel Suleiman was Breuer’s deputy chief-of-staff at Justice.
Jessica Klenk, a Booz Allen spokesperson, said that after Feinberg expressed her concerns, Booz “promptly organized meetings for her to meet with third-party specialists as well as their financial, compliance, and accounting teams in order to examine her concerns.” These experts repeatedly confirmed that the company’s business practices were legal and compliant over the following year.
Feinberg and Justice Department officials countered by saying that the $377-million payment is a blatant refutation of company’s claim.
Feinberg says that since the settlement announcement, she has received several messages from former and current Booz Allen staff praising her courage.
She said that her moral compass was developed in the Marine Corps when she led dangerous transport missions to Iraq during the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
She said, “It gave me a better sense of what was right and wrong. It also helped me to see the kind of service I wanted to provide for my country.”
In 2010, she left the Marines with the rank captain to join Booz Allen. She was drawn to Booz Allen’s reputation as the bulwark for U.S. national defense.
She said, “I enjoyed my time at Booz.” “I had nothing bad to say about Booz until I found out this fraud.”
Her 37-page complaint, which was sealed for seven years as the Justice Department conducted an investigation, contains a detailed account of what followed. Booz Allen refused to provide a detailed response to the narrative outlined in the lawsuit.
The suit claims that the company gave her leave to pursue her MBA and then, when she returned to work, placed her in a team headed by the chief financial officer of the company, with the task of examining ways to track and analyze financial information better.
She found out something that made her think. Booz Allen, whose consulting clients were overwhelmingly government agencies, had also tried to develop a business consulting service for private clients and international clients, such as Saudi Arabia’s government.
She said, “I found that our international and commercial practices were unprofitable.” “And to keep the company profit, they passed those costs on to the U.S. Government contracts.”
Feinberg initially thought that it was an oversight.
“I was very ignorant at the time and thought that people did the wrong thing because they didn’t realize that something was happening or that they didn’t understand what the right thing to do is. So I went to the finance head and told him what I found and asked if they were aware.
The lawsuit claims that it was Warren Kohm who is now chief financial officer of another company. He didn’t respond to a comment request.
The lawsuit claims that Kohm shut the door of his office and beckoned Feinberg into the room, making it clear he understood exactly what she said.
The lawsuit claims that he referred to it as a “gray area,” but also added that Defense Department auditors are “too dumb” to understand it and demand repayment.
Feinberg said to NBC News that he realized “that this was a very deliberate setup” at that point. It wasn’t that the government could be overcharged; it was also the case that the rates were designed to do so. We charged $120 per hour for work that we should have charged $100 for. This $20 was then used to subsidise the international business.
Feinberg began a campaign of nine months to convince her superiors to stop a practice she claims in her lawsuit that she was told to call something else than fraud.
In our private conversations I presented this as fraud – something the government would catch and we would be penalized for. But she said that “I was instructed to call it compliance risk.”
Feinberg stated that the situation “made me very upset as a tax payer.” As a Marine officer, it made me upset. I could see how limited our resources are. “It was absurd to think that Booz would overcharge the U.S. Marine Corps on things that were related to international contracts.”
She attended the meeting after dozens of phone calls and meetings. Lloyd Howell, the chief financial officer of the NFL Players Association, is now Director. He did not reply to a comment request.
She had planned the meeting to be a last push to get the firm to stop allegedly bilking U.S. tax payers to subsidise its money-losing contracts. She said the 90-minute session was reduced to one hour. Howell began by announcing that he had only 30 minutes.
She said that “most of the people in attendance were older men.” Two women were present, I believe. “I was the youngest person there.”
Howell cut off Feinberg’s presentation after she started.
She said that he told her, “I’m grateful for the work you have done on this… but we won’t make it a top priority.”
She was distraught.
“I left that meeting.” She said, “I called my husband immediately afterward and told him that I was quitting.”
In her resignation, she warned Booz Allen that it was engaging in “risky subsidies of failing businesses”.
Feinberg feels lucky in comparison to other whistleblowers. She quit Booz Allen and took a series lower-paying finance positions at media companies after leaving the defense consulting industry. She said that she was not threatened or punished for reporting alleged misconduct in a Fortune 500 firm.
She said that after she resigned from the company, two lawyers told her to destroy or turn over the documents that she had created describing the accounting scheme she alleged defrauded government.
She hired her own attorney, William Pittard from KaiserDillon.
Feinberg says she does not expect her life to change much despite the millions of dollars that are at her disposal. She is a runner who loves caffeinated drinks. She plans to remain in her neat, older Northern Virginia house with her husband Evan, who runs a nonprofit anti-poverty organization. Their children will continue to attend the public schools that they enjoy.
Plans include a trip to Italy and a lakehouse.
She said that she would donate a large portion of her money to charities and causes in which she believes.
Booz Allen: “I wish that they would have listened to my advice.” They would have avoided a lot more pain if they had listened to me.