Lifelong fraud-fighter pays a visit

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John Kotalik, 90, is a veteran, retired engineer and a lifelong crusader against waste, fraud, abuse and overbearing government.

Photo: James Eli Shiffer , Star Tribune

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John Kotalik’s battle over a medical bill sounded like so many of the eye-glazing pleas launched in my direction every day.

But Kotalik’s e-mail noted that he was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, as well as a retired federal worker who has blown the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse for decades.

This guy I had to meet.

Don’t call me, he responded when I e-mailed. He wanted “eyeball to eyeball” contact, given that his eardrums don’t work so well.

So last week, his wife carted Kotalik from their home in Coon Rapids to downtown Minneapolis so he could go through his beef with Medicare, the health care industry and the Washington bureaucrats who won’t launch a full investigation into $3,019 in questionable billing.

He wore a plaid shirt and a red ball cap advertising Budweiser Budvar (the Czech beer, he said, not that domestic stuff). The cap was festooned with a pin in the shape of a golf bag. He held a thick folder of printed-out e-mails, letters and testimonials to his integrity as a federal employee.

I asked him how old he was. Ninety-one in November, he said. So why doesn’t he just let it go?

I heard his wife, Dorothy, sigh.

“He’s always been this way,” she said.

Indeed, the South Dakota native offered me a whistleblower résumé of sorts. After serving in two wars, Kotalik turned his vigilance to the home front.

1953: He reported a high-ranking official at an Iowa air base for kickbacks. 1957: He called out a farm equipment dealer after seeing surface damage on a piece of equipment sold to a base. 1958: He got on the wrong side of a division commander after reporting an illegal water connection from a base to a church. 1973: Kotalik uncovered a colonel’s scheme to smuggle miniature jade trees out of Vietnam on bombers, to sell in the United States.

Kotalik worked as a civil engineer on the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota until he retired in 1980. That didn’t stop his whistle-blowing. In 1982, he reported the illegal construction of nine bus shelters on the base that weren’t authorized by Congress.

“If he saw somebody doing something he thought was wrong, he would try and correct it,” said Wayne Westlund, a retired lawyer in Grand Forks who worked on the base with Kotalik. Kotalik would jump the chain of command if necessary: “He was fearless in that respect.”

I did a little backgrounding on Kotalik and found some old lawsuits against Menards and the city of Coon Rapids. “I had to scratch my noodle at midnight,” Kotalik said, to remember why he would sue the company, but all he recalled was a disagreement over something he bought.

The dispute with Coon Rapids had to do with attempts to recover water bill overpayments. A few years ago, he had a run-in with the Transportation Security Administration over damage to some golf clubs that he checked through.

Then, three years ago, he had a lung operation. During his recovery, his health care provider ordered occupational therapy. The couple said: no thanks.

“They wanted to show him how to cook,” his wife said. “He’s never cooked a day in his life.”

Then Kotalik got the statement from Medicare, and as usual, he read it.

“I look at the things that the government pays,” he said. “It’s a habit of mine for the past 56 years.”

He complained to Medicare about the $3,019 in charges for the therapy he never used. Medicare got its money back. But that’s not enough for Kotalik. He wants a full probe, possibly under the False Claims Act, the old federal law that lets whistleblowers collect a cut of the money they recover for the government.

The government doesn’t typically pursue four-figure False Claims cases, but it does have a program that rewards up to $1,000 to people who turn in smaller scale waste and fraud. The vigilance of people like Kotalik is encouraging to Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, an advocacy group in Washington.

“It’s very important for Health and Human Services to make a payment in a small case, because it sends a message,” Kohn said. “There never really is a small violation, because a small violation is a door into potentially bigger violations.”

Before Kotalik left our meeting, he mentioned another outcome of his surgery. Last year, Kotalik filed a lawsuit in state court in North Dakota against more than 180 companies and individuals, alleging that the asbestos on the Grand Forks Air Force Base had damaged his lungs.

He’s scheduled to go to trial next March.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.

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