Lawyer Indicted Over Allegedly Fraudulent BP Spill Claims

  • Texas attorney Mikal Watts denies wrongdoing in statement
  • Watts earlier said some of claims for 42,000 victims flawed

Texas lawyer Mikal Watts was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly filing false claims for thousands of Vietnamese fishermen seeking damages from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, according to his attorney.

The indictment couldn’t be immediately confirmed in court records in Mississippi. Rob McDuff, a lawyer for Watts, said the indictment remained under seal and he declined to specify the charges.

Watts previously said he represented more than 42,000 spill-damage victims, many of them immigrant Vietnamese fishermen and deckhands who couldn’t speak English. He denied all wrongdoing in a statement issued by his lawyer. He said the government has “joined BP” in an “attack” similar to the lawsuit the oil company lodged almost two years ago alleging that he filed claims with fake Social Security numbers and on behalf of individuals who were dead or hadn’t hired him.

“After years of waiting, I will now finally have my day in court,” Watts said in the statement. He said that he had initially filed some damage claims based on “inaccurate information” and for individuals who hadn’t authorized them. Watts said he wasn’t aware of these misrepresentations at the time he filed the papers, and he promptly stopped whenever anyone notified him of discrepancies or asked him not to represent them.

Sheila Wilbanks, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, didn’t immediately respond to phone or e-mail messages after regular business hours seeking comment on the indictment.

Secret Service agents, who investigate identity theft, raided Watts’s San Antonio office in 2013. The lawyer resigned from the spill-litigation steering committee -- a post that would have entitled him to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees -- in March 2013. In Wednesday’s statement, Watts said he hadn’t been paid anything in the BP cases and is proud of the work he did for spill victims.

Watts made his name suing automotive firms, including Ford Motor Co., Bridgestone/Firestone and Chrysler, on behalf of motorists killed or injured by SUVs that rolled over as tires blew out, or who were ejected from minivans during side-impact crashes. Watts has also been involved in litigation against drug companies.

McDuff said he expects Watts’ indictment to be unsealed this month. He is scheduled to make his initial court appearance on Oct. 29 in federal court in Gulfport, Mississippi.

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