MVP: Sanford Heisler’s Vincent McKnight

Posted September 23rd, 2021.

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Law360 (September 23, 2021, 4:09 PM EDT) — As co-chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP’s whistleblower practice group, H. Vincent McKnight Jr. has helped federal authorities recoup billions of dollars, including a recent settlement that saw Wells Fargo agree to hand over $3 billion, earning him a spot as one of Law360’s 2021 Government Contracts MVPs.

His biggest accomplishment in the past year:

Last year, Wells Fargo & Co. and its subsidiary, Wells Fargo Bank NA, agreed to pay $3 billion to resolve criminal and civil investigations into allegations that bank employees routinely signed clients up for services and products, including savings and checking accounts, without their consent in order to meet company sales goals. Records indicated that Wells Fargo workers carried out this conduct for more than a decade.

McKnight represented Michael Bacon, a former Wells Fargo vice president and chief security officer, whose whistleblower complaint under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 bolstered the federal civil investigation into the company.

“Whistleblowers are really critical to understanding what’s happening in corporate America and trying to get corporate America — at least the unsavory portions of corporate America — to behave appropriately, to make them behave as good corporate citizens,” McKnight said. His firm has described the Wells Fargo case as “the poster child for corporate and bank mismanagement and fraud.”

Bacon ushered the government to the information needed to bring the FIRREA complaint and connected the dots to link top-level Wells Fargo executives to the alleged scheme. Following the civil settlement, McKnight’s client was awarded $1.6 million for his assistance to the government, the highest amount available under the act, according to Sanford Heisler.

Another notable case:

In May, federal contractor Navistar agreed to pay $50 million to settle claims that the company had overcharged the military for mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, after more than seven years of litigation.

“What our client came forward and demonstrated was that the prices and the parts that were provided to the government were not accurate,” McKnight said. “Some of the parts in particular were being shared by nongovernment vehicles, like trucks and other things they sold otherwise, so we knew that the pricing was way off.”

“So on the one hand you have a vehicle that saves lives, but on another hand, they’re lying about their pricing structure so they can mark up the price on these vehicles dramatically,” McKnight continued. “That’s where the competing concerns come in. You’ve got to get the trucks in the field, got to save lives, but that’s not a blank check for you to cheat the government.”

His proudest moment of the past year:

“My proudest moment has been working with the government stakeholders in the Wells Fargo case, but also continuing to represent whistleblowers and communicate with the government effectively in this very challenging environment,” McKnight said.

While it’s difficult to determine exactly how much is lost to fraud each year, government agencies and lawmakers consistently estimate that the figure is somewhere between 3% and 7% of the federal budget. In 2020, approximately $206.4 billion was lost to “improper payments,” according to the Office of Management and Budget.

And the rapid rollout of COVID-19 aid programs last year led to something of a fraud bonanza, according to McKnight.

“You can do a search on Google for ‘Paycheck Protection Program’ and ‘Lamborghini,’ and you will find several cases where [someone] submitted fake papers and got paycheck protection money, and then went out and bought a Lamborghini,” McKnight said. “Now, why do they always buy a Lamborghini? I don’t know.”

“I’ve been very much involved in trying to focus on what we are going to do about this new money,” McKnight continued. “We were already working hard to try to capture fraud, waste and abuse dollars that were in just the regular budget. Now we’ve got trillions more to worry about, and there are cheaters out there. So that has been challenging and rewarding because it’s sort of an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

As part of his work to prevent people from exploiting government programs, McKnight serves on the board of the advocacy group Taxpayers Against Fraud and regularly speaks on panels about new challenges in combating fraud.

Why he represents government contracts whistleblowers:

McKnight called his journey to whistleblower representation “an accident.”

He had been representing injured railroad workers and Amtrak managers involved in labor disputes for almost a decade when one approached him about the procurement process behind Acela trains in 1995. McKnight’s client, Ed Totten, alleged that suppliers had provided defective train cars and then billed for payment from Amtrak’s federally funded coffers.

McKnight took the case to the D.C. Circuit twice, where he made his case to some of the most important figures in today’s legal landscape, arguing that cheating Amtrak was cheating the government under the False Claims Act.

He said the high-profile nature of the case shifted the trajectory of his legal career.

“John Roberts was on the panel, and Merrick Garland was on the panel. John Roberts disagreed with me, and Merrick Garland agreed with me and wrote a dissent,” he recalled. “So we lost. But years later, Congress amended the statute and overturned the Totten v. Bombardier case by name. So we eventually won.”

What motivates him:

“I feel like I’m really lucky, and that’s because, to me, this is not just fun, but it’s interesting,” he said of his practice area.

No matter where he goes, people from all walks of life appreciate the work he does and understand that stealing from the government is ultimately bad for everyone, McKnight said.

“I get to work on something that, if I’m successful, helps the entire society, and also maybe I make a little money at the same time,” he said. “That’s a great job.”

His advice to junior attorneys:

McKnight urged junior attorneys to stay open to different fields in order to find one that resonates with them.

“Keep educating yourself. What are the new areas? What are the new frontiers? Where’s society going? What are the important issues? You just have to keep learning,” he said.

— As told to Jennifer Doherty. Editing by Daniel King.

Law360’s MVPs are attorneys who have distinguished themselves from their peers over the past year through high-stakes litigation, record-breaking deals and complex global matters. A team of Law360 editors selected the 2021 MVP winners after reviewing nearly 900 submissions.

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