Taryn Phaneuf Jul. 27, 2016, 4:24pm


GULFPORT, Miss. — The jury has started hearing testimony in the trial of a Texas lawyer who is accused of fraud and identity theft after allegedly inflating the number of clients he represented in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Jury selection began on Monday in the case against Mikal Watts of San Antonio and six co-defendants. The trial is expected to last six to 10 weeks, according to the Associated Press. Prosecutors allege Watts, two non-attorney members of his firm and four contract workers invented clients as victims of the spill and used people’s names and Social Security numbers without consent so that Watts would get a potentially lucrative position on the BP litigation steering committee.

Melissa Landry, executive director of the Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, told the Louisiana Record that she’s confident the jury will deliver justice in this case.

“The charges against Mr. Watts are deeply disturbing. The very idea of legal profiteering in the aftermath of such a tragic event is morally reprehensible,” Landry said. “But these allegations of massive fraud and identity theft are much more nefarious and seem to be illustrative of a legal system that is far off track.”

Big settlements and class actions seem to create an incentive for cheating and fraud, she added.

“This case can help change that by sending a strong signal to ethically challenged members of the plaintiffs' bar that fraud and corruption will not be tolerated in our legal system,” she said. “When a lawyer behaves unethically, the administration of justice is compromised and people are harmed. To allow this to continue without penalty or punishment seems absurd.”

A federal grand jury indicted Watts in September. The indictment showed that after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Watts started planning litigation on behalf of seafood crews. Watts applied for the plaintiff steering committee, claiming he represented more than 40,000 clients. He was selected by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. But the Gulf Coast Claims Commission asked Watts to confirm that he represents each client because several claimants had come forward, saying their Social Security numbers had been used without their permission. Several other clients were found to be deceased. The client list also included a dog named Lucy Lu.

Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association, told the Record he wasn’t surprised by the charges against Watts.

“Fairly or not, Watts has had a reputation for legal corner-cutting and abuse of our civil justice system for some time,” he said. “What I find surprising is that more lawyers aren’t similarly charged and punished more often. Rarely is the routine fraud that’s perpetrated on our civil courts by wealthy, politically well-connected personal injury lawyers punished civilly or criminally. And in the limited instances when it is caught and punished, it’s typically because the perpetrators get away with so much for so long that they become brazen.”

Kenneth Fenberg, head of the 2010 oil spill claims office, was the first to testify in the trial. He said he’d been skeptical of Watt’s claims because he didn’t think there were 41,000 fishermen in the Gulf who would file a claim, which almost doubled the list of people the claims office had already paid, the AP reported.

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