(CN) – The D.C. Circuit reversed a jury’s ruling against a nonprofit organization that gave an Interior Department economist $383,600 as a “public service award” for his work in stopping oil companies from underpaying royalties on tribal land.
Senior economist Robert A. Berman had helped the Project on Government Oversight understand how oil companies were allegedly short-changing the government.
The nonprofit group filed two lawsuits accusing major oil companies of violating the False Claims Act by undervaluing the oil they extracted from federal and tribal lands, and then underpaying royalties to the Mineral Management Service.
Berman also helped the organization draft Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents.
Because Berman was so helpful, the project’s director, Danielle Brian, agreed to give him one-third of any money the organization won in court.
In November 1998, the Project on Government Oversight mailed Berman a $383,600 check, explaining that it was a “public service award” for his “decade-long public-spirited work to expose and stop the oil companies’ underpayment of royalties for the production of crude oil on federal and Indian lands.”
But because federal law bars government employees from giving or receiving money for government service, the Justice Department charged Berman and the organization for the award. Jurors found the defendants guilty of violating the law.
The Washington, D.C.-based appeals court overturned the verdict on the basis that jurors had been improperly instructed to ignore the intent behind the award.
“[W]e conclude that a defendant’s intent to give or receive compensation for government services is a required element of the offense,” Judge Merrick Garland wrote.
The three-judge panel reversed and remanded for a new trial.