Jury selection in Gulf oil spill fraud case against lawyer

By The Associated Press

 

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — Jury selection is scheduled to begin for the federal trial of a San Antonio attorney and others accused of helping to inflate his client list for BP oil spill litigation.

Mikal Watts, two non-attorney members of his law firm and four contract field workers are going on trial Monday in federal court in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Judge Louis Guirola Jr. has said the trial is expected to take six to 10 weeks. But he planned a short first day in court for the 70 to 80 prospective jurors.

They were to fill out a questionnaire and then get the rest of the day off while government and defense lawyers review the questionnaires. Attorneys have said that should help them whittle down the numbers as quickly as possible.

Prosecutors wanted to begin questioning prospective jurors Monday, but Guirola said he thought they'd need more time. The questioning called voir dire will begin Tuesday, he said.

The judge also has said that 22 counts in the 95-count indictment appear to cover the same ground as other charges. However, online court records available Sunday night did not show how prosecutors propose to change that.

Watts, two non-attorneys with his law firm and four field workers are accused of inventing victims of the 2010 oil spill to land Watts a spot on the lucrative BP litigation steering committee and inflate legal fees he might collect.

Watts, an attorney who has earned millions suing corporations over client injuries, and the others all maintain they are innocent.

The codefendants are his brother David Watts and Wynter Lee, both of whom work in his law firm; and BP claim field representatives Hector Eloy Guerra of Weslaco, Texas; Gregory Warren of Lafayette, Louisiana; and Thi Houng Le and her sister-in-law, Thi Hoang Nguyen, both of Grand Bay, Alabama.

The indictment alleges that the contractors were paid more than $10 million to get names and other information about clients for the BP litigation. They allegedly used many names and Social Security numbers without authorization. Lee allegedly filled out a form listing a dog as a deckhand.

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