Forget the lawyer jokes. Here admirable attorneys and their determined clients use a peculiar law to wallop some haughty perps who almost lifted billions from Uncle Sam’s pockets.
Veteran nonfiction author Scammell (Mortal Remains, 1991, etc.) opens with a graphic war story verifying the bona fides of his first hero, a Vietnam vet who reported on faulty relays, many used in weaponry, knowingly provided by a Teledyne unit. His case was taken by a young public-interest firm, Phillips & Cohen, which in 1986 had been instrumental—with the legislative support of Senator Charles Grassley and Congressman Howard Berman—in reviving the False Claims Act, originally passed under Abraham Lincoln. Scammell explains with clarity the salient features of this legislation founded on the common-law notion of qui tam, under which an informer may sue for civil damages on behalf of the government (which can bring criminal charges) and thus earn a share of any award. Few firms take on qui tam litigation, which generally involves a complex, uphill legal battle, but Phillips & Cohen frequently did. The author describes their clients and their suits against thieving defense contractors and Wall Street sharpies, focusing on the Medicare fraud disclosures that resulted in a $1.7-billion payout by hospital owners and administrators. Scammell imparts a novelistic flavor to his depictions of informants’ lives of strain and isolation, sometimes compounded by death threats. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that working for—or being fired by—a willful, malevolent employer can be hell, even when redressed with multimillion-dollar qui tam rewards. Grassley and Berman lend their imprimatur to the text, which also appends a gratuitous reprinting of the False Claims Act.
News of the sort usually reported in The Wall Street Journal or on 60 Minutes gains a human dimension in Scammell’s morality tale starring two American archetypes: the team player and the lone whistleblower of personal integrity.