WASHINGTON (AP) — A judge declared a mistrial Monday in the case of a watchdog group accused of violating federal law when it shared a whistle-blower settlement with a government economist 14 years ago.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly made the call after the eight jurors in the civil case could not come to a unanimous verdict. The Justice Department claimed that the Project on Government Oversight and then-government economist Richard A. Berman had violated a ban on supplementing the salary of an executive branch employee.
The jurors split 7-1 in favor of the government against both POGO and Berman. The jury deliberated Thursday afternoon, all day Friday, and just a half-hour Monday before the judge called a mistrial. Both defendants had faced fines, but no jail time.
At issue was POGO's nearly $400,000 check to Berman in 1998 for his work exposing oil companies' underpayment of oil royalties to the federal government.
The case has dragged on for a decade, with two previous government victories reversed on appeal. The Justice Department did not immediately respond Monday to a question of whether it will try the case again.
Separately, Berman has appealed a judge's pretrial order that would force him to cough up the $383,600 POGO gave him. The order was not affected by the mistrial.
POGO's executive director, Danielle Brian, said the group hoped that "the Justice Department's persecution of POGO is over" and that the government would not pursue the case any further.
Berman said the government has been chasing him ever since he blew the whistle on the oil royalty issue.
"I find personally defending myself against the infinite resources of the Department of Justice very intimidating, and look forward to it being over," he said.
In 1996, POGO asked Berman to join its false claims lawsuit against major oil companies for underpaying royalties to the government. He declined, but the group agreed to pay him a one-third share of its take from the lawsuit.
The following year, POGO filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The group alleged that the major oil companies had violated the False Claims Act by undervaluing oil they extracted from federal and Indian lands, and therefore underpaid royalties to the U.S. The U.S. government intervened in that and other false claim suits, leading to settlement agreements that ultimately totaled $440 million. Under the False Claims Act, whistle-blowers can share with the government in any recovery of money based upon their disclosures. POGO's take was $1.2 million, and in 1998 it gave Berman a check for $383,600. The front of the check said it was a "Public Service Award."
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