While we are used to seeing whistleblowers call out companies and doctors who defraud the Medicare and Medicaid systems, the federal False Claims Act actually applies to any government contractor who defrauds or attempts to defraud the United States on any contract in any department.
In a recently unsealed case that was filed in 2016, a former engineer with aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney engineer has filed a lawsuit under the False Claims Act in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut. The suit accuses the company of knowingly selling “flawed” jet engines to the U.S. Air Force. According to the complaint, the defects in the engines could result in either premature wear in those engines or, in some cases, a possible “catastrophic failure.”
Whistleblower Claims Wrongful Termination
In the case, whistleblower Peter J. Bonzani Jr., of Bolton, Connecticut, has asserted that Pratt & Whitney fired him after he brought his concerns to company officials. Pratt & Whitney operates from at least six locations in Texas, including one in San Antonio, a plant that figures prominently in this lawsuit.
In response to the newly unsealed case, officials with Pratt & Whitney issued a brief emailed statement to the media in refutation of the claims made in refutation of the lawsuit. “There is absolutely no merit to these claims,” the officials wrote. “We intend to defend this case aggressively.”
According to the lawsuit, between Sept. 2012 and Nov. 2015, Bonzani worked at the company’s East Hartford plant, first as an independent contractor and later as a full-time employee. His job was to provide “automation and thermal spray expertise and services” at the plant. At one point, he discovered what he characterized as “intentional and/or reckless conduct,” which he maintains led to the use of a “flawed manufacturing process,” which resulted in “the creation of defective engine parts for fighter jets in use by the United States Air Force’s fighter jets.”
Claims of Contractor Negligence
The lawsuit also maintains Pratt & Whitney “recklessly used inappropriate spray equipment and flawed test methodologies” in the manufacture of jet engines. More specifically, he maintains the company deliberately manipulated test procedures in the manufacture of parts for the F119 engine used exclusively in the Pentagon’s F-22 Raptor fighter jet. Bonzani also insists Pratt officials engaged in the “inappropriate” spray procedure specifically in applying the coating on the “knife edge seals used in the engine rotors.” Accordingly, they also implemented a “similarly flawed spraying process” in the manufacture of the F100 engines used in the Air Force’s F-15 and F-16 fighter jets.
Due to the use of these flawed processes, Bonzani asserted that many of the engines supplied to the Air Force by Pratt & Whitney are at risk for “premature wear and possible catastrophic failure,” which puts pilot at greater risk. As a result of all this, the whistleblower claimed the company had submitted “false claims for payment” and had made or used “false records and certifications to get claims paid,” which puts them in violation of the federal False Claims Act.
According to Bonzani, when he advised his superiors of the flawed spraying process and the manipulated test procedures taking place at the Pratt & Whitney plants in both Middletown, Connecticut and in San Antonio, he claims he was “summarily suspended” and later, “wrongfully terminated” by the government.
The Whistleblower Award Could Be Huge
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Bonzani and the Department of Defense (DoD), asks the court to award the Department “three times the amount of actual damages which the United States has sustained as a result of” the company’s conduct. At the same time, Bonzani also is asking for double the amount of back pay he lost when he was wrongfully terminated, in addition to interest on the back pay, legal fees, and “any and all other compensatory and special damages.”
This could result in a very large award for both the Department of Defense and for Bonzani himself, since Pratt & Whitney has received billions of dollars in jet engine business from the Defense Department. It is also the sole supplier of engines for both the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Under the False Claims Act, as a whistleblower for the Department of Defense, Peter J. Bonzani will be entitled to between 15 and 30 percent of whatever the government recovers from the lawsuit. While he has claimed that was not his motivation for filing suit, with a possible settlement in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more than a billion, such a reward should serve as an incentive to others to report any possible fraud they see perpetrated against taxpayers at any level.