Via @walterolson, CQ Politics reported yesterday:

The Senate rejected a bid Thursday to impose new limits on whistleblower awards as it moved toward passage of legislation to beef up the government’s ability to combat financial fraud.

By 31-61, the Senate rejected an amendment by Jon Kyl , R-Ariz., that sought to set a $50 million maximum on the amount that a whistleblower could receive through a False Claims Act lawsuit to recoup taxpayer funds lost to fraud. Currently, awards can reach 30 percent of the total recovered for the federal government, if a judge approves that much.

Kyl said whistleblowers who pinpoint fraud by government contractors and other recipients of taxpayer funds “deserve to be compensated when they save the government money.” But he said the current percentage formula can result in some successful litigants being “grossly overcompensated.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy , D-Vt., sponsor of the antifraud bill, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley , R-Iowa, author of the 1986 False Claims Act provisions that reward citizens for suing on behalf of taxpayers, opposed Kyl’s effort to cap the awards.

The law, Leahy said, “is very well balanced the way it is, with a judge having to make a final decision on the award. …I don’t want to fix something that’s not broken.”

Grassley said whistleblower suits under the False Claims Act have recovered $22 billion for the government since 1986.

False Claims Act cases, sometimes known as qui tam (an abbreviation of qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur, meaning "[he] who sues in this matter for the king as [well as] for himself"), are unique and complicated beasts dating back to the 13th century in England. 1986 is when the most recent amendments to the Act were passed.

The cases are initially filed in under seal for review by the U.S. Attorney, who then decides if they want to pursue the action themselves. If they decline, then the whistleblower can proceed as a "relator" of the United States, fighting the action on the government’s behalf. There’s already a huge backlog of these cases waiting for Department of Justice review, unable to proceed.

I don’t blame them for the delay. The cases combine the legal complexity of interpreting federal regulations and procurement contracts with the factual difficulty of proving mens rea in a white collar criminal case, making them difficult and time-consuming just to screen, much less pursue.

The reason whistleblowers and law firms take them — with extraordinary risk to the whistleblower’s career and livelihood, and substantial investments in time and money by the law firm, which usually represents the plaintiff on a contingent fee — is because they can result in tremendous damages if proven at trial. Under 37 U.S.C. § 3729, anyone proven to have knowingly presented a false claim "is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of not less than $5,000 and not more than $10,000 [for each false claim], plus 3 times the amount of damages which the Government sustains because of the act of that person," as well as "costs of a civil action brought to recover any such penalty or damages."

The whistleblower — assuming they can prove entitlement by, among other elements, being the "original source" of the information — gets a portion of the recovery, which they then split with the lawyers who represented them on the contingent fee.

The question is: why would anyone want to cap these incentive awards at $50 million?

The vast majority of qui tam / False Claims Act cases don’t get anywhere near that. Some recent large settlements have been for $325 million against Northrop Grumman, with the plaintiff / relator receiving $48.7 million, and for $128 million against Network Appliance, with the plaintiff / relator receiving $19.2 million. One of the very few cases in which the award broke $50 million was the $1.4 billion Eli Lilly Zyprexa case, in which the four different plaintiff / relators together received $78,870,877, about 5% of the overall recovery. It’s unclear if even that would have hit Senator Kyl’s proposed cap, since it was divided among the plaintiffs.

The answer becomes clearer when you talk about massive cases, particularly those in which the government declines to intervene.

Assuming a 40% contingent fee agreement, a $50 million cap results in a $20 million cap on the attorney’s fees. Sounds like a lot until you consider that litigation and trial over the meaning of a few documents and involving only half a million pages of documents, 124 trial witnesses, and 80 depositions, can cost $60 million for each side. For the In re Visa Check/Mastermoney Antitrust Litigation, 297 F. Supp. 2d 503 (E.D.N.Y., 2003), had plaintiffs’ lawyers been billing by the hour, they would have worked in just the litigation the equivalent of $62,545,603 — trial would have been extra.

But the plaintiffs’ firms weren’t billing by the hour — they took on the risk themselves, much as most False Claims Act firms do. Can you imagine what it would take to actually prove at trial, as the DoJ press release says, "Northrop provided and billed the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for defective microelectronic parts, known as Heterojunction Bipolar Transistors (HBTs)?"

What about something bigger? What if there are serious problems with more than just the "Heterojunction Bipolar Transistors" in the $337 billion F-35 joint strike fighter? What if private military contractors in Iraq have been overbilling the more than $100 billion they’ve received? What about the next Zyprexa fraud?

Such cases would be enormously costly, time-consuming and difficult to pursue, undoubtedly many times larger than the $120-million-in-fees Princeton case and at least as large as the more-than-$120 million Visa antitrust case. Most importantly, such would be exceedingly risky, as the plaintiffs would have to prove "knowing" fraud among millions of documents, thousands of transactions, and hundreds of pages of complicated regulations.

What if the Department of Justice wasn’t able to commit the resources to do that? The government can’t always get David Boies and his team, eager to promote their new firm, for half price, like they did in the antitrust case against Microsoft.

Keep in mind, the core purpose of qui tam is not only to encourage whistleblowers, but to outsource the heavy lifting of carrying a lawsuit through to recovery. As noted by Justice Scalia, "The FCA can reasonably be regarded as effecting a partial assignment of the Government’s damages claim," critical because "the assignee of a claim has standing to assert the injury in fact suffered by the assignor. " Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex. rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765 (2000).

An upper limit on recovery of $20 million — or even, say, $40 million, if we doubled the contingent fee to 80% — isn’t enough to justify pursuing a case of that magnitude, which leaves us, the taxpayer, holding the bag for someone else’s fraud on the government.

Senator Kyl has never been a fan of open government. Is there a particular case brewing that he has in mind?