Tampa, Florida -- Fake secret agents, fake government agencies and plot to defraud the Department of Defense out of millions of dollars.
It sounds like a plot for an adventure movie, but it really happened, and a Tampa area man and a contractor with a Tampa office are at the center of the plot.
It was discovered when retired Air Force Lt. Colonel Tim Ferner felt something was wrong during his time working at Nellis Air Force Base in Southern Nevada.
"It was just disgusting, the whole thing," Ferner, who is now living in New Zealand, told us via Skype.
According to Ferner, he discovered what the government calls a deceptive scheme put together by Steve Stallings of Valrico and a defense contractor with the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).
At the time, SAIC had an office in Tampa, and talks about a commitment to integrity on its website.
Ferner discovered the contractors were billing the government for special secret services they were allegedly providing U.S Special Operations Command and Centcom at MacDill Air Force base, and NASA at Cape Canaveral.
But according to the government, the contractors were charging for work that wasn't performed.
Ferner reported it to the base commander and his boss, who he said then had a heart-to-heart talk with him in his office.
According to Ferner, his boss said, "We are both close to retirement, and if I let the thing go we could both get jobs as contractors and we'd be set for life."
That's when Ferner said he figured it out. "That's when I realized there was more to this than I originally thought," he said.
What he and the Justice Department discovered was that while Stallings claimed he was a black ops agent working for a secret government agency, it wasn't true. According to a federal complaint, Stallings was a civilian working at a building on the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway that also housed the Tampa headquarters of SAIC.
The complaint also says that together, they created a fictitious government agency that defrauded the department of defense and taxpayers out of millions of dollars.
Even after Ferner discovered what was going on, no one expected him to be a whistle blower. According to his attorney, Elaine Stromgren, the military culture is the reason.
"Those in the military are trained to stay within the chain of command," Stromgren said. "So to have somebody like Colonel Ferner stand up for what is right, and be willing to go outside the chain of command and report this fraud, is truly amazing."
But it wasn't easy. Ferner said he was shunned at work. At one point his boss told him to "take his s*** home and work from there until he retired in two years."
Then Ferner got a call saying he was on a list to go to Afghanistan, because his boss said he volunteered. Ferner said that wasn't possible, because he was being treated for cancer at the hospital in Nevada.
Depite the consequences, Ferner said he had to tell the truth because he didn't know if he was going to die as the result of the cancer, and he wanted his teenage boys to know that he was a man of integrity... even if it threatened his career.
And while he was committed to exposing the fraud, Ferner said, "Once you become a whistle blower, it's like the guy who crossed the Grand Canyon on the tightrope: you're out there all alone."
But by stepping on that tightrope, Ferner exposed the scheme and forced the contractor to pay almost $6 million back to the government.
While a clear conscience and the ability to set a great example for his sons is a priceless reward, Ferner will also receive more than $900,000 for helping the government recoup the money.
In response to our report, SAIC issued the following statement:
"We acknowledge that a settlement has been reached with the Department of Justice. SAIC disputes the allegations brought in the complaint by DOJ but agreed to settle to avoid the cost of protracted litigation.
SAIC was and continues to be fully cooperative with the Federal government and transparent in disclosure of information to the DOJ.
SAIC continues to operate as an extremely ethical and professional company, with the goal of always providing our customers the highest level of technical expertise to help them meet their mission and/or performance goals."
Stallings didn't want to comment.
As for the top brass that tried to cover up the incident, Ferner said the one-star general was promoted to a two-star; the two-star was promoted to a thre- star, and his boss was allowed to retire and then went to work for the same defense contractor that hired exiled leaker Edward Snowden.
Follow 10 News Reporter Mike Deeson on twitter @MikeDeeson
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