Mississippi jurors get oil spill fraud case against lawyer

AP News
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Posted: Aug 17, 2016 7:04 PM

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — Texas lawyer Mikal Watts and six other people each had plenty of opportunity to know they had a fake client list and were pursuing bogus claims after 2010's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, prosecutors told Mississippi jurors Wednesday in closing arguments.

Watts himself and lawyers for the six others though said the government had failed to prove criminal intent to defraud, blaming fellow defendants or saying the government was misconstruing innocent actions.

U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. handed the case to jurors Wednesday, telling them to decide 66 felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, identity theft and aggravated identity theft.

It's one of the biggest fraud cases to result from the 2010 BP PLC oil spill, featuring a list of more than 40,000 clients that included dead people and a dog whose name was apparently lifted from a phone book. Prosecutors said most of those clients never agreed to be represented by Watts, and that at some point following the spill, all the defendants in the case knew the law firm's documents were riddled with errors, but kept pursuing claims anyway because of a potential multi-million dollar payoff.

"They had no contact with their clients. They had no information on their clients," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Rushing said. "Their names were used without their permission, many from the phone book."

He noted that at various points defendants hired a private investigator to track down Social Security numbers, or filled in questionable incomes and occupations. Rushing pointed out claim letters sent to BP for clients that Watts and others had already been told were dead. He noted the firm asked BP for money even on behalf of two clients who had signed statements prepared by Watts' firm saying they weren't oil spill victims, in an effort to squelch a Louisiana attorney misconduct investigation.

"I would submit to you that Mr. Watts probably didn't know at the very beginning that there was a problem," Rushing said. "But once he became aware of the problem he did nothing to fix it. He knew he didn't have any clients back in 2010."

Rushing and fellow prosecutor Gregory Kennedy told jurors that the fraud featured two interlocking conspiracies, one involving Watts, his brother David Watts and law firm employee Wynter Lee. Then, on the Mississippi coast, they said another conspiracy involved people trying to gather client information, including Eloy Guerra, Greg Warren, Kristy Le and Abby Nguyen. Prosecutors alleged Guerra was the link between the two.

The Watts brothers and Lee, though, said they themselves were victims of fraud by the Mississippi group and lost $3 million on the BP litigation.

"The first words I told you was 'I got ripped off,'" Mikal Watts, representing himself, told jurors.

He said other actions that federal prosecutors alleged were criminal were just routine lawyering, such as sending out multiple letters to clients the firm was struggling to contact, and submitting claims to BP even after contact attempts failed. Watts said those claims were submitted to meet a legal deadline, but said phantom clients would never get paid.

"The proof had to be submitted before people were going to be compensated and I knew that," Watts said.

Lawyers for Guerra, Warren, Le and Nguyen also claimed innocence, saying prosecutors hadn't proved criminal intent on their part, with some blaming each other.

"The United States government has brought this massive machine against us, and they have failed to make their case," said Ramiro Orozco, Nguyen's lawyer.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy.