TAMPA — Got a dollar? You could play a slot in Vegas or buy a Lotto ticket.
Got $23.2 million?
Let a federal prosecutor invest it.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the region that includes the Tampa Bay area last year took in $8 for each $1 it spent, parlaying a $23.2 million annual budget into an enterprise that collected $191 million through criminal, civil and forfeiture actions.
The money was stripped away from people who ran pill mills, gambled illegally, exploited children, stole from Medicare, duped the Defense Department and violated the Do-Not-Call list.
The $8-on-the-dollar rate doesn't count the office's role in a nationwide discriminatory lending case that reeled in $175 million from Wells Fargo Bank, accused of charging higher fees and interest rates to African-Americans and Hispanics from 2004 to 2009.
"With or without the Wells Fargo settlement, this is far and away the best year we've ever had," said A. Lee Bentley III, acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, which stretches from Naples to Georgia and includes 35 of Florida's 67 counties.
Nationally, the Justice Department said it collected $8 billion, or nearly three times the $2.76 billion in taxpayer money that kept 94 U.S. attorney's offices and the department's main litigating divisions afloat.
"As these figures show, supporting our federal prosecutors is a sound investment," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this month in a statement.
His comment and the collection numbers were trumpeted by top prosecutors in districts across the nation in the days leading up to Thursday's passage of a spending bill by the Senate. The Justice Department's entire budget, $27.4 billion, included a $338 million increase over last year. The department also funds the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons.
In this district, Bentley credits law enforcement partners and his civil fraud division's efforts on whistle-blower cases filed by private citizens under the False Claims Act. The so-called qui tam actions — Latin, meaning brought for the government as well as the plaintiff — can make millionaires out of ordinary people who go up against others who defraud the government.
"It's really been in the last few years that our civil recoveries have shot way up," he said. "The main reason is our civil division has done a tremendous job developing the qui tam cases filed here and success breeds success."
The Middle District reported the nation's third-largest whistle-blower caseload during the budgeting year that ended Sept. 30.
The government and a tipster extracted $26.2 million from Venice dermatologist Steven J. Wasserman, accused of billing Medicare for work he did not perform. In two other cases, hospital chains paid settlements of $26 million and $10.1 million.
The public face of the U.S. Attorney's Office is often a steady stream of criminal prosecutions against drug traffickers, child pornographers, federal benefit cheats, illegal immigrants, counterfeiters and gun law violators.
But federal attorneys also serve as bill collectors for civil and criminal debts owed to the United States and criminal debts owed to federal crime victims.
The money follows several streams. Judges may impose fines, which feed the Treasury. They may order restitution for victims. They may enter monetary judgments against defendants or allow the government to take assets through criminal or civil forfeiture.
In September, Dennis Brian Devlin of Daytona Beach lost a $1.5 million interest in the Desert Inn hotel after he was convicted of making child porn there.
Participants in a Tampa-based pill mill ring lost, over a two-year period, more than $6 million in drug proceeds to the government, along with a Rolex watch, a Lincoln and real estate.
Routinely, agents identify suspicious cash and the government sues to keep it, filing forfeiture actions intriguingly styled United States vs. $20,000,000 or United States vs. $1,820,008.93. The former case, out of Jacksonville, related to mortgage document forgery; the latter, out of Fort Myers, related to online gambling funds seized in transit.
The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about asset forfeiture across the nation because the practice has at times been associated with racial profiling and because cash-strapped police agencies may have incentives to go after assets.
The U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't get to keep what it collects, Bentley said.
Some of it winds up in Justice Department or Treasury forfeiture accounts that are used to pay crime victims or fund law enforcement programs.
Some settlements go back to the Treasury, or to specific federal payers such as Medicare.
"There's no financial incentive for us to seek more in higher recovery," he said. "We do it because it's the right thing to do and it's a central part of our mission."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.