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Utah Prisoner Blows Whistle on Abuse of Federal Grants, Leading to $1.55 Million Settlement – And New Law Restricting Prisoner Records Requests

In March 2023, Utah lawmakers approved a settlement with the federal government for abusing its grants, which may also reward Reginald Williams, a state prisoner who blew the whistle on the abuse. But the law also took pains to make sure no other prisoners can follow in his footsteps.

When he worked in an prison print shop in 2012, Williams began to suspect that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) was misusing federal grant funds from the American Reinvestment Act of 2009. Three years later, based on information obtained through Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) requests, he filed a qui tam suit, accusing the state of violating the federal False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a), and seeking part of the resulting damages.

Eventually, in April 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah intervened and filed its own complaint under FCA with Williams as the relator. Named as defendants were officials with Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), the state Office of the Attorney General, DOC, Department of Public Safety, Division of Juvenile Justice Services, Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and Administrative Office of the Courts.

All the defendant officials had signed grant documents in which they “attested to the truth and accuracy of the applications” and agreed to comply with grant requirements. The complaint, which raised claims of fraud, breach of contract and unjust enrichment, accused the officials of making false statements about their compliance with the federal grants they received, including non-supplanting provisions specifying that a state agency could not use grant funds to “reduce its budget by using federal money to replace state money it would have spent on the same activities absent the grant money.”

However, the Utah DOC and other agencies that received federal funds reportedly submitted “false and fraudulent assurances and certifications to obtain grants.” They had supplanted state funds with the federal grant money by improperly “moving existing employees into grant-funded positions but not immediately filling the vacated positions with new hires,” or by “using grant funds to pay current employee salaries while misrepresenting that the ... positions would be, or were, eliminated in budget cuts.”

CCJJ, which disbursed the federal funding to state agencies, had failed to properly monitor and ensure compliance with the grant requirements. According to the complaint, state officials misused around $17.25 million in grant funding between 2009 and 2013; the federal government sought treble damages plus civil penalties.

On March 13, 2023, the Utah legislature passed joint resolution SJR 007, approving a $1.55 million settlement to resolve the case. Although the settlement was with the federal government, Williams, who filed the original suit based on his GRAMA requests, may be entitled to a portion of those funds under FCA.

Following his exposure of the fraud, state lawmakers in 2017 passed SB 242, strictly limiting prisoners’ ability to file GRAMA requests. Now prisoners can seek only records related to their own criminal cases. Moreover, they can file just five GRAMA requests per year. The bill was pushed by the state Attorney General’s Office, one of the agencies that fraudulently obtained federal grant funds. See: United States v. Utah, USDC (D. Utah), Case No. 2:15-cv-00054.  

Additional source: KJZZ

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