One of the little known costs that taxpayers unwittingly pay is the Judgment Fund administered by the Treasury Department. This fund is used to pay “judicially and administratively ordered monetary awards against the United States” when it loses lawsuits, as well as settlements by the government of threatened or actual lawsuits. It is a permanent, indefinite appropriation that literally pays out tens of millions of dollars for mistakes, errors, and violations of federal law committed by federal agencies and federal employees with little notice.
The Treasury Department does file a yearly report with Congress and maintains a webpage that can be searched. But the cryptic and limited information available in the report and the webpage (like “Control Number”) is not sufficient to identify what it was that the government did wrong and who is benefitting from these government payments.
The name of the federal agency that was a defendant in the litigation or claim is identified, but not the plaintiff or the attorneys that brought the action. The statute that was the basis of the litigation or claim is listed, but there is not even a brief description of what exactly the dispute was or what violation was committed by the feds.
No copy of the complaint, judgment against the government, or settlement agreement is made available. This could easily be supplied through a hyperlink that would allow anyone to click on these documents and obtain the details of the acts that gave rise to the government’s liability and who is receiving taxpayer funds to pay off the government’s mistakes or intentional wrongdoing.
Taxpayers and Members of Congress should insist on more transparency. We deserve to know all of the details of how the Judgment Fund is being spent, something that is not currently possible. There is no ability, for example, to determine whether government agencies are engaging in collusive litigation with certain plaintiffs and advocacy organizations, settling claims that should not be settled, and making payments to plaintiffs and their attorneys that are not reasonable under the applicable law and facts.
One bill that would provide for needed transparency is the Judgment Fund Transparency Act of 2013, which is being introduced today by Representative Cory Gardner (R–CO).
This bill would amend federal law to require the Treasury Department to provide:
- The name of the plaintiff or claimant making liability claims against the federal government and their counsel;
- A brief description of the facts;
- The amount of taxpayers’ funds paid by the government for principal and ancillary liability, including attorney fees, costs, and interest;
- A copy of the complaint or written claim and any answer made by the government;
- A copy of the final judgment of a court or the settlement agreement; and
- The name of the federal agency that submitted the claim.
This is not a partisan issue: Regardless of their party affiliation, Members of Congress should be interested in requiring greater transparency of payments made by the federal government to cover liability arising from the actions of federal employees and federal agencies when they violate federal law. While Members of Congress seem to be at loggerheads on many different issues, this should not be one of the issues that divide them.