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Head Start fraud claim advances

A former Head Start official in Norton can sue the local program under the federal False Claims Act, a Big Stone Gap federal district court ruled yesterday.

Suits under the False Claims Act allow a plaintiff, or “relator,” to blow the whistle on fraud by a government contractor.

G. Wayne Herndon alleged he was fired from his position with Kids Central when the program learned he had cooperated with officials of the Department of Health & Human Services in an investigation of budgetary shortfalls that shut down the program for two weeks in 2002.

The federal agency allegedly discovered a number of unauthorized expenditures and requested reimbursement of $228,601 in disallowed costs. The agency eventually reduced that amount to $36,619, which the Norton program paid, according to a Feb. 3 opinion by Chief U.S. District Judge James P. Jones

Jones denied Kids Central’s motion to dismiss the suit, holding in U.S. ex rel Herndon v. Appalachian Regional Commuinty Head Start Inc. that Herndon had enough evidence of a retaliatory discharge to go to a jury.

Kids Central said it fired Herndon because he publicly opposed a corporate restructuring plan and that affidavits from HHS personnel indicated Herndon was not involved with the federal investigation.
By Deborah Elkins

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