A Madison roofer was the key whistleblower in a lawsuit settled last week that recovered more than $400,000 over allegations a Bangor company cut corners on federal building projects in Maine.
Brian Emery helped expose the fraud allegations after he was hired as a subcontractor by Belcon Enterprises, also known at the time as Roof Systems of Maine, based in Bangor. The projects were underway from 2010 to 2014.
Emery, 52, owner of Maine Roof Solutions, said in an interview Tuesday he was prompted to file suit under the federal False Claims Act because his concerns about “egregious” problems with the projects were ignored and dismissed by both the contractor and government officials. The False Claims Act is used to combat fraud by contractors and other businesses doing work for the federal government.
“I was met more with platitudes,” Emery said Tuesday, who started learning the roofing trade at age 9 from his father and has been working in the business for 40 years. “They outwardly ignored the problem.”
Washington, D.C.-based law firm Constantine Cannon, which represented Emery in the case, said in a news release that the Bangor roofing company allegedly defrauded the government by violating contract requirements and industry standards.
Roof Systems of Maine was sold earlier this year, and its surviving company assets are now called Belcon. The former owner and president of Roofing Systems, Kevin Griffin, died in December.
Larry Sterrs, a representative and family friend of Griffin, said in response to the Constantine Cannon release that “it’s a press release from the lawyers that benefits the lawyers.”
“At the end of the day, the company fully cooperated with the government and there was no assessment of wrongdoing,” Sterrs said.
Under the civil settlement announced Friday, Roof Systems agreed to pay $439,500 to resolve allegations that it violated the federal False Claims Act, according to the office of U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II. Emery was represented by attorneys Timothy McCormack and Molly Knobler, as well as James Haddow, of Petruccelli, Martin & Haddow LLP, of Portland.
Roof Systems “operated in the shadows, working on the cheap to line its pockets, at the expense of the American taxpayers and our uniformed men and women,” Haddow said in the release. He added that thanks to Emery bringing the alleged fraud to light, safety problems related to the building projects didn’t go undetected.
McCormack said in the release that Emery’s “knowledge of the mechanics and metallurgy of roofing and siding is incredible” and the Madison roofer’s expertise “was essential to making this settlement happen.”
The allegations centered on contracting work for three federal sites involving the departments of the Army and Navy and the National Guard Bureau.
Emery said in the complaint that when he was hired as a subcontractor for Roof Systems, he saw a “systemic and deliberate use of inferior products and improper installation techniques,” according to the law firm. Building projects were underway at the Cutler Naval Radio Station, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery and the Brunswick Army National Guard base. Emery was involved with all three projects, supplying a crew of about 13.
Emery first started on the Portsmouth job in 2010. The Cutler job lasted from about spring 2013 to the summer of 2014. Work in Brunswick started in January 2014 until Emery refused to work on it anymore in July 2014.
Emery started noticing problems on the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard job when he helped assemble the pieces for a building and noticed weaker and cheaper steel screws were being used on the iron frame — he thought it was temporary — instead of stronger, contract-specified brass bolts.
But the bolts were never used, and it resulted in weaker steel beams more prone to corrosion 40 or 50 feet up high, creating a safety and structural problem, he said.
“Seems like a recipe for disaster to me,” Emery said. “The Portsmouth job should obviously be redone.”
That pattern continued over the next several years with the other jobs, as Emery said he saw a “systematic attitude” of not using the right materials.
The Cutler project involved repairing a power plant from the 1950s. Emery’s complaint said Roof Systems used different materials that didn’t protect against water infiltration and saltwater erosion.
At the Army National Guard base project in Brunswick, Roof Systems is alleged to have installed modified panels incorrectly at the wrong locations and knowingly used nonspecified, off-contract materials on two roofing and siding projects.
BLOWING THE WHISTLE
Emery reported the faulty work allegations to the project manager and other top contractor officials, as well as the Army and Navy, according to his lawyers.
Emery said he encountered outright resistance and threats along the way.
Once he emailed an Army official listing specific panels he was concerned about and the email was leaked back to the general contractor and “presented to me in a fairly threatening manner. They threatened to sue me,” he said.
In July 2014, Emery refused to continue working for the contractor and he began researching the options for filing a complaint. Emery said after a Google search for law firms specializing in the False Claims Act, two he contacted wouldn’t take the case on, saying there was no money to be made. Constantine later agreed to take on the case.
The whistleblower suit lasted a year and a half until the settlement was reached, which is “lightning fast” because most such False Claims Act cases take three to five years before being resolved, McCormack said. The lawyer credits that unusual case speed to Emery, who supplied “very concrete information” and expertise that allowed the government to understand what was acceptable and what was not.
“Being a tradesman in central Maine — and I have been my entire adult life — time is money, and it was painfully slow,” Emery said of the case.
Emery will receive 18 percent of the government’s recovery “in recognition of his efforts to report the fraud and the assistance he provided with the subsequent investigation,” according to his lawyers.
Emery, for his part, does not think the $439,000 settlement is adequate.
“I was entirely dissatisfied with the settlement. I thought the government considered things that had nothing to do with the black and white world of, ‘You broke it, you fix it.’ The settlement amount is a fraction of the projects’ costs,” Emery said.
Of his own 18 percent share, he said that does not cover his own lost compensation, but “it was never about the money. That’s why I quickly made peace with the settlement.”
“There is a bittersweet aspect of being a whistleblower,” McCormack said. “The costs they pay in terms of retaliation and lost opportunities is often not fully compensated.”
Instead, McCormack said, being a whistleblower is more about “the opportunity to have a voice. You can force the government into action.”