(Reuters) - The government has taken over a lawsuit alleging that engineering company Fluor Corp misused federal funds to lobby for more money for a nuclear materials training facility that it managed.
The Justice Department said on Thursday it had intervened in the case brought by whistleblower Loydene Rambo in federal court against Fluor Hanford Inc and its parent company. Fluor had a prime contract at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Hanford Nuclear Site in southeastern Washington state from 1999 to 2008.
Under the False Claims Act that authorizes people to sue on behalf of the United States and share in any recovery, Rambo says Fluor breached contractual restrictions by using DOE money to lobby officials for more funding for the Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) Center in Hanford.
The company said it "vigorously denies" the allegations.
Rambo, a former Fluor employee, alleges the lobbying took place between 2005 and 2008 and that the Irving, Texas-based company used lobbying firms Secure Horizons LLC and Congressional Strategies LLC, which were paid with DOE funds.
"The allegations set forth in the whistleblower complaint are troubling and very serious," Michael Ormsby, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, said in a statement.
The government can come in to whistleblower lawsuits if it believes they have merit. The Justice Department said it had intervened with respect to Fluor, not the two lobbying firms.
"The taxpayer money Congress allocated for this program was for training federal emergency response personnel and first responders, not to lobby Congress and others for more funding," said Stuart Delery, acting assistant attorney general for the civil division of the Department of Justice.
The claims in the case are allegations only, with no determination of liability, the Justice Department said.
"Fluor is aware of the action announced by the Department of Justice, and the company vigorously denies the allegations in the Hanford case," a Fluor spokesman said.
The case is "U.S. ex rel. Rambo v. Fluor Hanford, et al." in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, No. cv-11-5037.
(Reporting by Braden Reddall in San Francisco; editing by Andrew Hay)