The US Government Department of Justice recently issued a news release.
“Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corporation has agreed to pay the United States $377,453,150 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by improperly billing commercial and international costs to its government contracts. Booz Allen, which is headquartered in McLean, Virginia, provides a range of management, consulting, and engineering services to the Government, as well as commercial and international customers”.
I do love the precision of the final $150 on that number! Couldn’t they have rounded it slightly?
The accusation was that between 2011 and 2021, the consulting firm charged costs to its government contracts and subcontracts that should instead have been billed to its commercial and international contracts. That particularly applied to some indirect costs. So the government was allegedly paying for activities and services that had nothing to do with the work the firm was actually doing for government organisations.
Now allocating overheads can be a tricky issue, as many of us know. And Booz Allen issued a statement, as you might expect.
“Booz Allen has always believed it acted lawfully and responsibly. It decided to settle this civil inquiry for pragmatic business reasons to avoid the delay, uncertainty, and expense of protracted litigation. The company did not want to engage in what likely would have been a years-long court fight with its largest client, the U.S. government, on an immensely complex matter. The company fully cooperated with the government and is pleased to move forward.”
So there is no admitting liability or guilt here. I can understand why the firm does not want a long, expensive fight – on the other hand, if you were 100% sure of your position, many firms would choose to take it further rather than handing over quite such a large amount of cash.
The most amazing element of this story is this. The investigation was sparked by a whistleblower, a former Booz Allen employee, Sarah Feinberg, who tipped off the authorities about the alleged misconduct from 2011 to 2021. And now she will receive no less than $69,828,832 as a thanks (it’s that precision again…)
$69.8 million! Good grief, I’m going to have a good think now about every firm I’ve ever worked for and whether they might have done anything “naughty” in their dealings with the US government …
The moral of thee story is simple. Check your billing from professional service firms. I once took on a senior interim commercial/procurement role in government with an organisation that had around 100 consultants from one firm working on its major programme. That was £500K A WEEK we were paying this firm (it better be nameless…)
I took a look at the invoices – incredibly there was no contract manager for this contract – and found that amongst other things, we were being billed for the senior partner’s assistant. The partner was only working about a day a week on our project, but we appeared to be paying a grand a day, every day, for his PA. We were also billed for the whole day for the whole team when I knew they had stopped work at lunchtime for their office Christmas Party! “An unfortunate error” I was told. I saved £50K with one phone call there…
Of course, if you can structure any professional services assignment on a fixed price basis, most of these issues are avoided. That approach is usually – although not always – better for the buyer and actually arguably for the provider too. That is another question in this Booz Allen example. Why was so much government work being done on what sounds like a pretty loose “time and materials” basis?