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By Michael E. Miller
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Braun sometimes refers to himself as a bounty hunter, an appropriate label, he explains, for anyone who files under the False Claims Act. Also known as the qui tam statute, the act allows a citizen to operate as a private attorney general by suing a party who has allegedly committed fraud against the federal government. If the case is successful, the whistleblower then receives a percentage of whatever the government recovers.
Braun doesn't look anything like the rough-and-tumble bounty hunters of the big screen. He wears large, wire-rimmed reading glasses; a horseshoe of white hair frames a bald spot atop his head. He moves slowly and deliberately. At times, when he reaches back mentally for a name or date, his eyes close and his jaw slackens until the data is retrieved. He speaks in an even, sometimes thin voice, but occasionally frustration rises to his throat and he'll spit out invective with youthful force.
His daily schedule for the past few years has gone something like this: He and his wife, Thelma, arise and eat breakfast. If they're not scheduled to play bridge or golf, he'll go into his study and work on his lawsuit or continue to research qui tam, Indian sovereignty, and anything else remotely related to the subject. Lunch. Nap. Then, if they're not scheduled to play bridge or golf, he'll put in a couple more hours of work. Suing the Seminole Tribe of Florida has been, for all intents and purposes, his part-time job for the past four years.
This is not how Braun expected to spend his golden years, though he'd never planned to retire from business entirely, he says. He served as a radio-radar technician in the Navy during World War II and was onboard several ships during the Allied invasion of Sicily. He married in 1945 and completed an engineering degree at Columbia University in New York City a year later. He went into business for himself, founding companies to market products he patented. For example, he invented a long-lasting but inexpensive battery that powers beacons on lifejackets stored on passenger jets.
He adheres to the teachings of Kabbalah, a mystical aspect of Judaism that developed in medieval times. Asked how he got ideas for inventions, Braun describes at length Kabbalah's explanation of inspiration.
In the early 1970s, Braun and his wife moved to South Florida, where he assumed a semiretired lifestyle and maintained an office on North 29th Avenue in Hollywood. Among his projects at that time was a vending machine that would dispense carbonated beverages using spring water.
Some time in 1988, several women from the Better Business Bureau visited his office seeking his support for a local project. During the discussion, they mentioned that a start-up company called U.S. Fish was looking for investors in a fish farm. "I always had believed that the United States needs fish farming for our economic health," Braun says. "In South Florida, we have the best atmosphere and environment for fish farming, but we don't even take advantage of it."
The women put Braun in contact with John Taylor and J. William Shawfield, who were president and vice president of U.S. Fish Corp. They had already entered into a ten-year lease with the Seminoles in April 1987 that the BIA had approved. At the time, the farm had 150 acres of ponds, a hatchery, wells, and a processing plant. "I knew a lot of people, venture capitalists," Braun says. "They came to me for funding. I took a ride to the fish farm, and what I saw there impressed me."
From a storage closet, Braun pulls out enlarged color photographs that were apparently mounted on the wall at one time. In one, a pair of latex-gloved hands cradles a cluster of yellowish fish eggs. Another shows a dozen men, hip-deep in water, gathering up a huge net in one of the farm's ponds to harvest the adult fish. It takes about two years for the fish to grow big enough to sell.
U.S. Fish missed its quarterly lease payment of $16,000 in July 1988. At this point, Braun and his associate, Oster, invested about $600,000, brought the lease payments up to date, assumed control of the company, and started raising tilapia as well as catfish. Then, in May 1989, Braun discovered the big fish kill.
"I brought in the world's leading experts on aeration, because that's what kills the fish -- no air," Braun remembers. "We contracted to redo the whole farm. I had the guys put up more money to do this. We wired the whole farm for electricity to put the aerators in place, and lo and behold, within a few months, we had another fish kill. I'd say half to three-quarters of the full-grown fish were lying on the banks in the morning."
More experts finally found the root of the problem: The mud at the bottom of the ponds was stealing oxygen from the water. Apparently much of the high-protein food fed to the fish in the years before U.S. Fish took over had saturated the mud. "The ponds were so polluted by misuse that they could not be used without resalvaging," Braun says. Upon further investigation, the company discovered that the well water on the farm was toxic to fish and had killed fish during shipping, and that there were defects in the construction of the processing plant. "I knew all this after the company was out of money," Braun laments. U.S. Fish failed to make its quarterly lease payment in October 1990, and the BIA canceled its lease.