Lesley Ann Skillen is a partner of US law firm, Getnick & Getnick. She leads the firm’s False Claims Act qui tam practice and is a world leading authority on this unique area of law, having represented qui tam whistleblowers in the US since the early 1990s. She’s worked on some of the biggest cases of fraud in the US pharmaceutical market including a $251 million settlement with Bayer pharmaceuticals and a $750 million recovery from GlaxoSmithKline where whistleblower Cheryl Eckard received a record $96 million payout.
In this week’s Success Stories episode, Lesley Ann speaks with Catherine Robson about the benefits of paying whistleblowers compensation, her advice for women in law and her best financial investment.
Qui tam lawsuits are a type of whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act in the US. In this type of legal case, whistleblowers receive a payout if the government successfully recovers funds lost to fraud. New York based Getnick & Getnick focuses on business integrity and anti-fraud litigation, representing the victims of fraud which can be corporations, government or individuals.
“The area that has been my primary area of focus since I’ve been in New York has been the whistleblower law,” says Lesley Ann.
“That allows a private citizen who knows about a fraud on the government to bring a lawsuit in the name of the government and there is a financial reward associated with it. There’s a percentage of up to 30% of the proceeds,” she explains.
Surviving the financial, emotional and career repercussions of publicly calling out corporate criminal conduct can be softened by the whistleblower’s payout.
“Whistleblowers generally are good people and they really just want to fix things; that’s what motivates them.”
“The reward is there so it doesn’t become just a foolhardy exercise in career destruction. It’s intended to provide some compensation to people who do take those risks and lose their careers.”
Lesley Ann worked closely with whistleblower Cheryl Eckard who in 2010 received a $96 million payout, one of the biggest in US history at the time, after an eight-year legal battle with GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK). Cheryl, previously a global quality assurance manager for the pharmaceutical giant exposed criminal misconduct in manufacturing processes at a GSK factory in Puerto Rico.
The case highlights the incredible amount of work involved in prosecuting large corporations.
“That involved a long effort working alongside the government prosecutors. They had a very large team of investigators, different agencies working on the case. We worked alongside them and reviewed about 1.5 million pages of documents that were produced by the company.”
“The end of it was two years of settlement discussions, it was really pretty harrowing. But the prosecutors were wonderful, they were two women who were just unbelievably brilliant and tenacious and we had a wonderful result in the end.”
Lesley had been involved in efforts to introduce a qui tam type practice to Australia after the success she’s seen in the US.
“There are many benefits. The primary and most obvious benefit is the defrauded funds that are returned to government. In the last 2 decades, that’s amounted to about $50 billion US dollars, from these kinds of whistleblower cases. In addition, it stops the practices because whistleblowers expose corporate fraud and then they can’t do that anymore. Another benefit has been that companies are much more focused on compliance,” she says.
Lesley Ann left her role as Director of Policy and International Relations for the Australian Securities Commission in the 90’s after learning about the racketeering statute in the US. Receiving a distinguished Churchill Fellowship to study in NYC she packed up her life in Australia and headed to the States with a goal to take her career to the next level.
“It was incredibly exciting, I just fell in love with New York at first sight.”
“The reason that I came here was to research, so I met lots of people. I was working with the organised crime task force in NY for a couple of months, I met a lot of prosecutors and I met my current law partner as part of that research. I established a network through doing the research.”
Calling New York home for more than 20 years, the move didn’t only benefit her career; some savvy real estate purchases have paid off too.
“The best investments I’ve made have been in real estate (in the US). My husband and I have two apartments in the same building so we have our independence and together time and both of those apartments have definitely increased in value a lot,” says Lesley Ann.
“We have a vacation house in the Florida Keys which I would say is my absolute best investment in overall terms because it’s just beautiful. As much as I love New York and all the crazy big city stuff, it’s made me really appreciate how nature just fills you with joy.”