SCOTUS Hears Rocky Flats Whistleblower Case

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in the case of Rockwell International Corp. v. United States (previously covered at Colorado Confidential here), in which the issue is whether a whistleblower who worked at the metropolitan Denver area Rocky Flats nuclear cleanup site and provided information after the Rocky Mountain News did some investigative reporting, was enough to entitle him to a share of the more than four million dollars of civil damages the United States received in a suit against the Rockwell International, which was found to have improperly conducted the cleanup.  The government has taken the side of the whistleblower in the case, and is asking the Supreme Court to affirm the decision of the Denver based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case.

Federal law generally allows whistleblowers to bring suits on behalf of the government to recover damages for the wrongdoings of its contractors and get a share of the recovery, but only if the whistleblower’s information was sufficiently relevant to the recovery.  The Supreme Court’s decision and its opinion in the case, which was heard on an expedited basis, probably because it presented a relatively straightforward question of statutory interpretation, is likely to be issued sometime early in 2007.

The gist of the oral argument is that the whistleblower and government were arguing that the whistleblowers general tip off that the company had a corporate climate of disregarding the law is enough to entitle him to a share of the recovery, even if the specific information provided turns out not to be an important reason that the government wins its case.

The contractor who defrauded the government, in contrast, argued, with considerable skepticism from both liberal and conservative judges, that the information provided by the whistleblower must directly relate in some way to the ultimate reason that the government wins an award.

The alignment of the parties in the case is unusual, because the government is arguing that it should get less money, while the fraudulent contractor is arguing that the government should get more money.  Both the government and the contactor are arguing their long term strategic interests in having more or less whistleblowing occur, rather than caring much about the outcome of this actual case, which matters primarily to the whistleblower.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke

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