Food supplier to US troops fined $560m for fraud

WASHINGTON - The US government on Monday fined Supreme Group, one of the largest suppliers to US troops in Afghanistan, US$434 million (S$560 million) for fraudulently overcharging the government for food and water.

The group, headquartered in Amsterdam and owned by American billionaire Stephen Orenstein, pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay large fines as well to resolve civil suits in the case brought by the US Justice Department.

The charges said a Supreme Group Swiss subsidiary Supreme Foodservice GmbH, and a Dubai-based unit Supreme Foodservice FZE, came up with a scheme to fraudulently add to the profits provided in the group's US$8.8 billion contract to supply the US military in Afghanistan during 2005-2009.

"The companies fraudulently inflated the price charged for local market ready goods and bottled water sold to the United States," costing the government an extra US$48 million, the government said.

Internal emails between company executives cited by the government showed their "deliberate decision to inflate the prices," via an intermediary company in the United Arab Emirates, the Justice Department said.

It also said that in 2007 the company had paid off a fired executive who had threatened to tell the US military about the overcharging.

The two companies pleaded guilty to criminal charges of major fraud and will pay US$288 million in fines, restitution and refunds.

In the civil cases, Supreme Group will pay US$101 million to settle a "whistleblower" lawsuit filed by a former executive that accused the group of knowingly overcharging the government. Another US$45 million in fines where levied in specific overcharging cases.

"The civil resolutions and agreements reflect the Justice Department's continuing efforts to hold accountable contractors that have engaged in war profiteering," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce Branda in a statement.

"The department will pursue contractors that knowingly seek taxpayer funds to which they are not entitled." In a statement Supreme Group said it has tightened up internal compliance mechanisms to better control its operations in response to the charges.

"We accept full responsibility for and deeply regret our past actions," said Emma Sharma, the general counsel for Supreme Group USA.