Procedure for Refunding Overpayment of Fine

B-201385: May 29, 1981

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A request was made for an advance decision regarding the proper procedure in refunding money to a company. The company was fined under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, after a hearing before a hearing officer of the U.S. Coast Guard. The company appealed the decision of the hearing officer to the Commandant of the Coast Guard. While awaiting a decision on its appeal, the company paid the fine. Having timely appealed this decision, the payment was not then required. The Commandant, who has the power to remit, mitigate or suspend all part of an assessment, reduced the fine. The company requested a refund. The Coast Guard, while recognizing that the company should be reimbursed, was uncertain as to the proper procedure for a refund. The company's check was deposited into a fund which is made up of any fines collected under the Act and of monies appropriated to the fund. The fund is to be expended for specified purposes such as removing hazardous substances from waters, dealing with maritime disasters posing serious water pollution threats, and reimbursing owners or operators for the cost of removal of hazardous substances under certain circumstances. As the Coast Guard noted, none of the purposes for the fund deals with remission of monies erroneously placed into the fund. The amount the company finally owed, and the amount that became part of the fund, was not ascertained until the company had exhausted the administrative appeal process. When the hearing officer assessed the penalty, the company was not required to pay at that time provided it appealed the decision to the Commandant within 30 days, which it did. The general rule for the refund of monies erroneously received and deposited into a fund is not applicable to monies which were properly deposited into the fund in the first place. GAO had no objection to treating the overpayment as having been prematurely received and deposited. Accordingly, since it may be considered as having been erroneously credited to the fund, the Coast Guard should refund the amount to the company from the fund.