Federal judge delays until Feb. 1 BP fraud case against San Antonio attorney, 6 others

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GULFPORT, Mississippi — A federal judge has agreed to delay until Feb. 1 the BP fraud case against San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts and six others.

The Sun Herald reports (http://bit.ly/1LyZhdd) U.S. District Court Judge Louis Guirola Jr. found the evidence so voluminous that attorneys would need more time to prepare their defenses.

Watts wants to go to trial as soon as possible, his attorney Robert McDuff told the judge, because the case has been hanging over Watts' head since a February 2013 search of his law office was leaked to the media. McDuff said he was hired to defend Watts a short time later, but would drop his objection to one delay of the Dec. 7 court date because attorneys newer to the case will need more time to prepare.

The U.S. Attorney's Office and Secret Service investigated the case, indicting Watts, two non-attorney members of his law firm and four field workers on 95 charges each of conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, identity theft and aggravated identify theft. The government claims the defendants manufactured victims of the BP oil catastrophe in 2010 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, maintains his innocence, as do his co-defendants: 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.

Warren and Le set up a BP claims office in the Biloxi area.

The government's case, with Assistant U.S. Attorney John Dowdy of Jackson serving as lead prosecutor, centers on 41 unidentified people whose personal information was allegedly submitted without their knowledge for compensation over losses the spill caused. They were falsely identified as seafood-industry workers, the government contends.

The government alleges Watts and his firm submitted the names of more than 40,000 victims in the consolidated BP case being managed by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans. In the end, only four clients were found to be eligible for payments, the indictment says.

Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

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