GULFPORT, Miss. (CN) - The United States claims a Florida development zone spent nearly $4 million in federal money to build itself a new headquarters and lied to the government about it.
The USA sued the Technological Research and Development Authority (TRDA) in Federal Court, under the False Claims Act.
Uncle Sam claims the TRDA falsified grant applications submitted to NASA and the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration, made false statements to get federal funds, and improperly spent grant money.
The TRDA is a special district chartered by Florida to support small businesses "through the development and administration of small business 'incubator' facilities intended to provide office space and other resources to small businesses," according to the complaint.
Partly funded by Florida, the TRDA maintains "incubator facilities" in Florida and New York, and gets some of its money from NASA research grants. It headquarters are in Melbourne, Fla., and it has other Florida offices in Homestead and Brevard County.
"From 2002-2007, NASA awarded TRDA over $20 million in research grants," the complaint states. "These grants funded a substantial portion of TRDA's operating expenses.
"In 2004, TRDA and the Melbourne Airport Authority and the City of Melbourne International Airport (collectively referred to as the 'airport') agreed to construct a new headquarters and incubator facility for TRDA using NASA research grant funds, with additional funds coming from a grant from EDA.
"The United States alleges that TRDA made false statements and false claims in connection with the award and use of these NASA research grants and the EDA grant, and that TRDA and the airport conspired in this misconduct." (Parentheses in complaint).
The Melbourne airport is not named as a defendant.
The government claims TRDA used NASA and EDA money to build its headquarters, though the Economic Development Administration requires applicants to co-finance their projects, and federal law prohibits commingling of federal grant funds. And it claims TRDA lied to both agencies about the scope of the grants.
"In or around 2003, TRDA decided to build a new, state-of-the-art incubator and headquarters facility on land owned by the airport (hereinafter the 'Melbourne building')," the complaint states. "However, TRDA had no money for the project, and the airport had no interest in providing money, so TRDA and the airport agreed to use NASA and EDA grants to pay for it.
"By January of 2004, though, TRDA knew that neither NASA nor EDA could approve grants for construction of the Melbourne building, for several reasons. First, new construction was outside the scope of TRDA's only existing NASA grant, as well as the earmark legislation that restricted how the particular NASA funds were to be used. Second, TRDA had no basis to expect that upcoming earmark legislation or the corresponding NASA grants would cover such a project. Third, federal law prohibited the commingling of federal grant funds.
"TRDA attempted to avoid these hurdles by entering into a plan with the airport to redirect as much money as needed for the Melbourne building from TRDA's existing and anticipated NASA grants, and securing additional grant funds from EDA. Neither TRDA nor the airport notified NASA or EDA, or sought their approval, for this plan.
"Thus, on Jan. 13, 2004, TRDA and the airport entered into an agreement in which TRDA agreed to pay the airport 100 percent of the construction costs for the Melbourne building.