Trial under way for lawyer in Gulf oil spill fraud case

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GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) – A Texas lawyer and six co-defendants fraudulently inflated a client list for lawsuits against BP after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a federal prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Rushing said in his opening statement that the list included people who died before the spill and people whose names and Social Security numbers were used without their permission.

Rushing said one reason the list was inflated was so that Watts could get a lucrative spot on the plaintiffs’ steering committee, which he described as a group of 22 attorneys who were paid a total of $600 million.

Lawyers for three defendants say contract field workers committed fraud and duped their clients. Those defendants included two employees of Watt’s law firm and Hector Eloy Guerra, whose lawyer described him as the liaison between the law firm and the field workers.

“Michael Watts and his investors and Michael Watts’ law firm got scammed,” said Michael McCrum, representing David Watts, a data analyst for his brother’s law firm.

McCrum said correspondence will show that David Watts was continually trying to get more information about people named on the list.

He also took issue with Rushing’s description of the payment for the plaintiffs’ steering committee, saying the money was divided among hundreds of lawyers working for 95 firms.

The other co-defendants are BP claim field representatives Gregory Warren, Kristy Le and her sister-in-law.

The indictment alleged that the contractors were paid more than $10 million to get names and other information about clients for the BP litigation.

Banking information available only after an indictment showed that Warren and Le spent much of the law firm’s money on themselves rather than on the work they were being paid for, McCrum said.

Attorneys for office manager Wynter Lee and Guerra also said their clients knew nothing about the fraud.

Lawyers for two field workers were scheduled for opening statements after a lunch break.

Mikal Watts, an attorney who has earned millions suing corporations over client injuries, is representing himself. He and the third field worker’s attorney plan to make their opening statements after prosecutors have presented all their evidence in the case.

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