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ONLY ON 12: Federal prosecutors issue stern warning to future fraud at SRS

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Friday, August 5, 2011

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles of the South Carolina District has some strong words for the parties at Savannah River Site who stole millions of dollars worth of stimulus money.

"Fraud of stimulus packages is something we will not tolerate, and the culture of thinking it's okay must end," he told News 12.

His team of prosecutors are keeping a sharp eye on some workers at SRS.

"This investigation has been going on for some time -- both the civil and criminal component of it -- and we've brought it to a conclusion for these individuals," he said.

So far, they have two convictions, and they say those two individuals have been sentenced. Another will file a plea agreement later this month, and three others are in the pretrial diversion program. They've also reached settlements out of court with two other parties.

How were they able to steal from the government?

"They claim to have a primary place of residence outside of a particular radius, and then they would incur dual living expenses in the Aiken area," said Dean Eichelberger, an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

He says the money that landed in their paychecks for living expenses was money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more commonly known as the federal stimulus package.

"The lowest case is about $6,900. The highest case is upwards of ... 70- and $80,000," he said.

He says even though the individual amounts weren't too astronomical, they add up to about $2,000,000.

"This is money that comes from the Federal Treasury. As soon as that amount of money passes one thousand dollars in the aggregate, it is a felony," he said.

They also say it's not just individual workers stealing from the government; companies are, too. They already went after the Aiken County recruiting firm Southern Recruiters & Consultants, Inc.

"What this group was doing was they were facilitating the false statements of somebody saying, 'I got dual living expenses,' when in fact, [the employee was] living home with their parents, for example," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Leventis.

That company settled out of court. They paid back $47,000. So far, $1,900,000 has been recovered overall.

Leventis says more cases continue to come in. They say that type of "per diem" fraud has been going on for a while, even before the stimulus package. However, they say regardless of where the money is coming from, it is an illegal act, and they will continue to prosecute.

The United States Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General has been working closely with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia.

The DOE says $1.6 billion in stimulus dollars was allocated to the Savannah River Site. They also say the money saved or created 4,600 jobs.

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