Well that didn’t take long.
The 2014 session of the Legislature was exactly two days old when the House of Delegates Democratic leadership butted heads with the business community.
The trouble started when the House Judiciary Committee, under new chairman Tim Manchin, rushed through H.B. 4001, the False Claims Act. The legislation establishes qui tam proceedings, legal action brought by private citizens against the state or companies doing business with the state believed to have committed fraud or violated the law.
(Qui tam, pronounced kwee tam, is Latin for “who as well.”)
If the suit is successful, the person bringing the claim is entitled “to receive at least fifteen percent, but not more than twenty-five percent of the proceeds of the action or settlement of the claim.”
Proponents, including new House Speaker Tim Miley, are marketing the bill as a way to root out fraud and corruption.
“It incentivizes reporting internally from anyone working inside the government or anyone working inside private companies who see their companies overcharging the government,” Miley said on Metronews Talkline last week.
Business leaders don’t see it that way. State Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts believes the legislation will lead to a rash of baseless lawsuits by disgruntled employees.
“It’s a ‘sue and settle’ bill,” said Roberts. He adds that the many of the small businesses that have contracts with the state don’t have a team of lawyers to review every contract. “What problem does this solve?”
Miley has made government accountability a priority. The scandal in Mingo County, the suspicious loans and spending in the state Department of Agriculture under former Commissioner Gus Douglass, and the wasted stimulus money on Internet routers have all focused attention on allegations of government fraud.
“I’m not sure why they (business leaders) believe taking steps to discourage fraudulent behavior is anti-business,” Miley says.
But Roberts is unconvinced and has pledged to go to the mat on this one. “The business community is 100 percent adamantly opposed to a plaintiffs’ lawyers ‘sue and settle’ statute.” He pledges opposition at every stage of the legislative process, adding that the Chamber would also hold it against bill supporters at election time.