The U.S. Mint, E Pluribus Unum, and the False Claims Act

09/20/2013 // Justice News Flash: Featured Column // Kathleen Scanlan // (press release)

Carved into the granite façade of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco is the Latin phrase “E PLURIBUS UNUM.” Originally incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States, the phrase was later stamped on the coins we use as currency. Roughly translated it means “from many, one.”

The phrase has a somewhat poetic application in the case of the San Francisco Mint which dates back to California’s gold rush era. Miners hauling their lodes out of the mines needed a safe place to bring their bounty. Quite literally, out of their many finds, we forged one currency.

Establishing the San Francisco Mint was also a brilliant move to fight fraud. In the heady days of the gold rush, there was as much money to be made counterfeiting, speculating and robbing as actually going out and hitting the mother lode. Fraud was everywhere. In establishing the Mint in proximity to mining operations, the federal government devised a way to create order from chaos.

The Mint safeguarded the integrity of what would become US currency and controlled the distribution of that currency. It all seems so obvious more than a century and a half later. The Mint today, which continues to create coinage, is surrounded by barbed wire and security lights. Armed guards patrol the entries and use mirrors to search under vehicles coming onto the property. It is a fortress on a rock hill. We’ve clearly gotten security down. Such precautions are obviously important. When was the last major theft from a U.S. Treasury building where our legal tender is made? The modern reality, however, is that someone looking to walk away with millions, or billions, of dollars from a government-run facility doesn’t have to scale granite walls or disarm guards in a Hollywood-style heist. Today those individuals just contract with the government and have the government wire the funds directly into their accounts based on false claims for payment for anything from airplanes to pharmaceutical products. Fraud on the government is our 21 Century multi-billion dollar problem. Whether you are stealing from the actual mother lode or defrauding the government in a contract, the end result is the same. It’s an ill-gotten gain.

That’s why the U.S. Mint in San Francisco is not the only legacy of smart 19th Century decision-making we still use. The False Claims Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, is another. Like the Mint itself this utilitarian legislation continues to play a vital role in the 21st Century. Using the False Claims Act the government joins forces with a private citizen – or citizens, to expose false and fraudulent claims on the government, and to recoup amounts that have been paid out improperly. In fact, the Department of Justice considers the False Claims Act its primary weapon for fighting fraud on the government and constantly reinforces the vital role that private citizen whistleblowers play in exposing these frauds. Some government officials even actively seek out more whistleblowers to come forward. Indeed, when many come forward they play a part in protecting our collective assets. In other words, e pluribus unum.

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