Mikal Watts Trial | Facebook
A prominent San Antonio lawyer who has been a major Democratic fundraiser over the years was acquitted Thursday of allegations he helped create some 40,000 bogus clients in order to file $2 billion in fraudulent claims against BP for damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In September 2015, the Department of Justice indicted Mikal C. Watts, his brother David, Wynter Lee, Gregory P. Warren, Hector Eloy Guerra and Thi Houng Le and Thi Hoaug Nguyen on nearly 100 counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, identity theft and aggravated identity theft. The Watts siblings, Lee, Guerra and Nguyen were found not guilty of all the charges, which had been whittled down to 66, the San Antonio Express-News reports
. Warren and Le were found guilty on all counts.
On April 20, 2010, there was a massive explosion at an oil rig operated by BP in the Gulf of Mexico near Mississippi that spewed millions of gallons of oil for 87 days and killed 11 people. It was the largest oil disaster in the Gulf. Damage was widespread. Aside from devastating consequences for marine life, the spill caused a wide-spread public health crisis among clean up workers and coastal residents, along with negative economic repercussions for Gulf Coast communities because people didn't think it was safe to visit those states. The spill was so massive that oil from the disaster showed up as far away as Florida and South Texas.
In 2012, Watts filed a class-action lawsuit against BP on the behalf of thousands of people who worked as deckhands or as fishermen arguing that the spill caused "economic loss and property damages" that could have been prevented by the oil giant, which a judge found was grossly negligent. In a settlement, BP was ordered to pay more than $2 billion in damages to people negatively effected by the spill. In 2013, BP counter-sued Watts, accusing him of fabricating his client list. That lawsuit's been on hold because of the criminal trial.
Watts defended himself during the weeks-long trial. In an interview with the Associated Press
, Watts said that he and the other defendants who were acquitted were caught up in a scheme perpetrated by Warren and Le, who were convicted of making up names and stealing people's personal information to file fraudulent claims. Watts had hired the two to compile a list of clients. According to the AP story, the list was full of errors, including people who didn't give permission for representation and even a dog, but Watts said fraud was never their intent and he was relying on the legal process to shake out which claims were legit and which ones weren't. The jury sided with Watts, who told the Associated Press after his acquittal that the government's case against him was ridiculous.