Monday, August 15, 2022

Universal Helicopters Inc. and Dodge City Community College Agree to Pay $7.5 Million to Settle False Claims Act Allegations Related to Post-9/11 GI Bill Funding

Universal Helicopters Inc. (UHI), a private helicopter flight instructor training company, and Dodge City Community College (DC3), which operates campuses in Dodge City, Kansas, and Chandler, Arizona, have agreed to pay $7.5 million to resolve allegations that they violated the False Claims Act by making false statements to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in connection with the helicopter flight instructor training program jointly run by UHI and DC3.

The VA provided financial assistance as part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to veterans taking classes at the UHI-DC3 helicopter flight instructor program. The United States alleged that from 2013 to 2018, UHI and DC3 made or caused to be made false statements to the VA regarding enrollment in the UHI-DC3 helicopter flight instructor program in order to obtain VA funding. UHI has agreed to pay $7 million and DC3 has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle these allegations. The settlement with DC3 is based on its ability to pay.

“The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides significant educational opportunities to our nation’s veterans,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The department will continue to help safeguard the integrity of VA programs intended for the advancement and benefit of veterans.”

“One of the ways the U.S. government demonstrates gratitude to our veterans is by creating programs intended to create easier paths to accessing higher education,” said U.S. Attorney Duston Slinkard for the District of Kansas. “It’s disheartening that any institution of higher learning would submit inaccurate information in order to improperly receive funds designed to benefit those who serve our nation.”

“This case demonstrates the VA Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) commitment to aggressively pursue schools who target veterans’ education benefits,” said Special Agent in Charge Rebeccalynn Staples of the VA OIG’s Western Field Office. “The VA OIG will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to protect the integrity of VA’s education benefits program and urges anyone with knowledge of possible fraud against VA to contact the OIG’s hotline at 1-800-488-8244.”

As part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, the VA provides tuition and fee payments directly to qualifying schools on behalf of eligible veterans. To qualify for the program, among other things, a school is required to certify to the VA that no more than 85 percent of the students for any particular course are receiving VA benefits. This requirement, commonly referred to as the “85/15 Rule,” is intended to prevent abuse of Post-9/11 GI Bill funding by ensuring that the VA is paying fair market value tuition rates since at least 15 percent of the enrolled students would be paying the same rate with non-VA funds. To determine whether it is in compliance with the 85/15 Rule, a school compares the full-time non-VA supported students enrolled in a particular course to the full-time veteran students enrolled in that same course. A separate ratio must be computed for each course of study.

The settlements resolve allegations that from 2013 to 2018, UHI and DC3 falsely certified compliance with the 85/15 Rule when the UHI-DC3 helicopter flight instructor program included certain expensive classes that were taken almost exclusively by veterans. In addition, in its settlement with DC3, the United States alleged that to reach the required 15 percent threshold, DC3 counted part-time students enrolled in only one online class per semester as full-time students, in violation of VA rules.

The civil settlements include the resolution of claims brought under the qui tam or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act by William Rowe, a veteran and former student in the UHI-DC3 helicopter flight instructor program. Under those provisions, a private party can file an action on behalf of the United States and receive a portion of any recovery. The qui tam case is captioned United States ex rel. Rowe v. Dodge City Community College, et al., No. 18-cv-01113-TC-GEB (D. Kan.). Rowe will receive $1.125 million as his share of the settlements.

The resolution obtained in this matter was the result of a coordinated effort between the Justice Department’s Civil Division Commercial Litigation Branch, Fraud Section, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas, with assistance from the VA OIG and the Veterans Benefits Administration, Education Service.

Trial Attorney Jonathan Thrope and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Fleenor for the District of Kansas prosecuted the matter.