NEW ORLEANS – A Texas lawyer and six co-defendants are now facing a reduced indictment of 73 charges, instead of 95, at federal trial on accusations that they faked more than 40,000 damage claims after the BP oil spill in 2010.
Online court records show that prosecutors dropped 22 counts of identity document fraud before jury selection began Monday in Gulfport, Mississippi, in the case involving litigation arising from the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. had said earlier that the charges that were dropped appeared to be the same alleged offenses as the indictment's 22 counts of aggravated identity theft.
Prosecutors said attorney Mikal Watts of San Antonio, Texas, two non-attorney members of his law firm and four contract field workers invented victims or used real people's names without permission to land Watts a spot on the lucrative BP litigation steering committee and inflate legal fees he might collect.
The judge has said trial is expected to take six to 10 weeks. He planned a short first day in court for the 70 to 80 prospective jurors. They were being asked to fill out a questionnaire and then take the rest of the day off while government and defense lawyers reviewed the questionnaires in hopes of whittling down the pool of candidates as quickly as possible.
Prosecutors wanted to begin questioning prospective jurors Monday, but Guirola said he thought they'd need more time. The questioning called voir dire is set to begin Tuesday, the judge said.
Watts, an attorney who has earned millions suing corporations over client injuries, has pleaded innocent along with the others.
The co-defendants are his brother David Watts as well as Wynter Lee, both of whom worked in his law firm; and BP claim field representatives Hector Eloy Guerra of Weslaco, Texas; Gregory Warren of Lafayette, Louisiana; and Thi Houng Le and her sister-in-law, Thi Hoang Nguyen, both of Grand Bay, Alabama.
The indictment alleges that the contractors were paid more than $10 million to get names and other information about clients for the BP litigation. They allegedly used many names and Social Security numbers without authorization and Lee allegedly filled out a form listing a dog as a deckhand, according to the indictment.
Watts' inflated numbers prompted BP PLC to agree to pay $2.3 billion to shrimpers, fishermen and others who lost money in the seafood business because of the oil spill, and "fraudulently increased the settlement amount and inflated the amount of compensation" due to legitimate plaintiffs, the 56-page indictment alleged.
It also says Watts used the numbers to win a seat on the committee of lawyers that negotiated that settlement in 2012, making him eligible for "money over and above any money he might make on attorney fees." Watts resigned from the steering committee during the federal investigation.
BP made similar allegations in a lawsuit filed in 2013 against Watts and his San Antonio law firm. It's on hold until the criminal case is over.