NEW ORLEANS – Four attorneys accused of participating in a pay-to-play claims scheme connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were all deemed to have engaged in unethical behavior last week by the judge overseeing the case.
In the hearing, held last Friday, U.S. District Carl Barbier reserved formal judgment but was frank in his assessment of the actions of the accused, saying they did “tremendous injury” to the integrity of the BP claims process.
"I rather regret that it has come to this,’’ Barbier said. “This is not what I was signing up to do when I took this job."
The hearing involved four attorneys who were accused by Louis Freeh, a special master in the case, of acting unethically including former claims center employees, Christine Reitano and husband Lionel “Tiger” Sutton, and Glen Lerner and Jonathan Andry, private attorneys who were accused of attempting to have their claims expedited. Freeh said Sutton took a $40,000 kickback from the Andry Lerner law firm in an attempt to expedite claims. Barbier found, however, that no claims were expedited.
No criminal charges have been filed in connection with Freeh’s judicial inquiry into the four and Freeh’s lawyer has since said that Reitano was not involved in the expediting matter. However, Barbier did say Reitano acted unethically when, as an employee of the claims center, she attempted to get a vendor to hire her husband.
Only one of the four attorneys accused in the investigation, Sutton, testified during Friday’s hearing. In sworn testimony, Sutton admitted that he received a $40,000 off the books payment from Glenn Lerner for the $357,000 claim of Slidell-based shrimper Casey Thonn – who himself recently pleaded guilty to filing a fictitious claim. Sutton stated that the $40,000 payment he received was payment for work he did on the Thonn case before taking a job with the claims center. Later in the hearing, Sutton admitted he lied when he was asked by Patrick Juneau, the claims administrator, about receiving the payment.
Sutton said the motivation for his lie to Juneau was to keep Reitano, his wife, from finding out about the money. Reitano was fired from the claims center when the payment to Sutton came to light.
“I didn’t want her to realize she gotten into all of this trouble because I was trying to hide money from her,” Sutton said.
In a report on the matter, Freeh said Sutton had attempted to help gets claims filed by the Andry Lerner law firm paid more quickly, but was unsuccessful in doing so – something Barbier agreed with.
Barbier said the conduct of those involved in the Thonn claim ran contrary to attorney ethics rules. Moreover, he said Sutton and Lerner should have disclosed they were business partners in a separate business unrelated to the BP claims center.
“Mr. Sutton admitted here today that he lied and made false statements that he had any type of financial interest,” Barbier said.
Though criminal charges in connection with the investigation appear unlikely, Andry and Lerner are a facing a future ban on representing BP claimants. Also, Andry could lose the right to pursue a $7.8 million claim filed in the BP case on behalf of Andry Law Firm, of which he was a co-owner with brother Gilbert “Gibby” Andry IV for 15 years including the year of the oil spill.
All four attorneys could face professional sanctions, such as a bar suspension or the loss of their licenses to practice law.
Barbier said he would make a formal ruling in the investigation at a later date.
Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said the court's findings are just further evidence that the Deepwater Horizon claims system is broken.
“From false statements to secret payments, this hearing highlights another stunning example of the pervasive misconduct that has unquestionably infected the claims system,” she said.