In a civil settlement with the Dept. of Justice, Okland Construction Co. Inc. has agreed to pay the federal government $928,000 to resolve false-claims allegations related to the Small Business Administration’s small disadvantaged business (SDB) program, the department said.

In announcing the settlement on March 21, DOJ said Salt Lake City-based Okland entered a mentor-protégé agreement with Saiz Construction Co. Inc., a West Valley City, Utah-based firm that participated in SBA’s 8(a) SDB program.

In the settlement agreement, Justice alleged that Okland and Saiz did not form an SBA-approved joint venture. Justice said Okland, therefore, wasn’t eligible to team with the small firm to bid jointly on 8(a) contracts.

In its press release, Justice claimed Okland “concealed its extensive involvement in performing the 8(a) contracts by misrepresenting to the government that its employees were employees of Saiz Construction.”

Okland strongly denied the allegations. In a statement provided to ENR on March 24, the company said: “Fraud is absolutely wrong and Okland would never engage in that kind of activity. Okland disputes the government’s allegations and decided to settle because it was financially wiser to do so than to engage in more expensive, drawn-out litigation.”

The company added, “We have operated ethically for over 96 years and will continue to do so.”

The settlement document states that it “is neither an admission of liability by Okland nor a concession by the United States that its claims are not well-founded.”

The settlement cites nine federal contracts, awarded from September 2003 to September 2007, in which it says Okland had “improper participation” in the 8(a) mentor-protégé program. Most of the contracts were for work at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The government alleges in the settlement document that Okland prepared bids for those contracts and its workers acted as project managers and superintendents. It also says Okland had its employees submit invoices and handle payroll and accounting activities.

In addition, DOJ alleges that Okland “violated the False Claims Act by knowingly submitting, or causing to be submitted, false or fraudulent claims for payment to the United States and making or using, or causing to be made or used, false records or statements to obtain payment for false or fraudulent claims.”

The settlement also resolves a lawsuit that Saiz and its owner, Abel Saiz, filed in 2011 under the False Claims Act’s whistle-blower provision. Saiz and his firm will receive $148,480 from the federal government. Okland also will pay Saiz $86,000 for attorneys’ fees.

In its lawsuit, Saiz Construction said, “As the mentor-protégé relationship between Okland and Saiz progressed, it became apparent to Saiz that Okland was simply using the agreement as a vehicle to enable Okland … to receive work under 8(a) contracts for which it was ineligible.”

The lawsuit added, “When Mr. Saiz brought his concerns to his mentor company, Okland simply threatened to pull any bonding on existing projects and informed him that if he had a problem, Okland would ‘bury [him] in court.’ ”

Saiz also said in its filing, “Using Saiz Construction and its 8(a) certification as a pass-through or front, Okland sought and obtained the … contracts.”

Karra J. Porter, president of Salt Lake City law firm Christensen & Jensen PC—which represents Abel Saiz and his company—said via email, “8(a) compliance and fraud are hot issues these days.” She added, “The federal government seems especially attuned to the potential for abuse in this area.”

Okland ranked at No. 67 on ENR’s 2013 Top 400 Contractors list. ENR Mountain States named Okland its top contractor for 2013.