NEW ORLEANS -- A group of Vietnamese-American fishermen and business owners filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against a Texas lawyer already accused of “brazen fraud” in the BP oil spill claims process.
The civil complaint, filed by Tam Le and 14 others against attorney Mikal Watts and his law partners Hunter Craft and Francisco Guerra, comes less than a month after BP itself filed suit against Watts for fraud.
The fishermen’s case piggybacks on BP’s claims that Watts lied when he claimed to represent more than 40,000 deckhands against the oil giant.
Seven of the plaintiffs in the case filed Tuesday claim that Watts used their names without their authorization to falsify his client rolls as he angled for and won a spot on the coveted plaintiffs’ steering committee.
Watts was forced by the court to resign from that post last year. But Watts has denied committing identity theft or fraud, and his attorney sent a statement to WWL-TV on Tuesday explaining that his client was simply doing his best to get claims in in time for all of those injured by BP’s massive oil disaster.
“Mr. Watts made various filings on behalf of people to preserve their rights to pursue claims,” said Watt’s attorney, Robert McDuff. “All actions taken were in good faith that legitimate claims were being filed for real people who had been hurt by BP’s gross negligence.”
Tuesday’s lawsuit said Watts sent “dear client” letters in Vietnamese telling them they needed to sign contracts with his firm and warning “Do not sign anything from BP or anyone else besides Watts Guerra Craft,” even though these plaintiffs say they had never met Watts and were, in some cases, already represented by other lawyers.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Tam Le, said Watts tried to represent him personally in a fishing claim even though it was his business, LV Marine Corp., that actually owned the fishing boat and had the claim against BP.
McDuff said Watts and his firm “sent people regular updates regarding the status of the litigation. Only a small percentage contacted him to say they had never intended to sign up with him, and he promptly stopped making submissions for those who did. With respect to the remainder, he made the necessary filings to preserve their rights.”
The New York Times first reported serious questions about Watts’ client base back in 2011. Early last year, the Secret Service raided Watts’ San Antonio law office, apparently as a part of a Justice Department probe. Watts has not been charged with any crime.
But the fishermen’s case alleges civil racketeering violations, contending that Watts used their names and those of other unwitting Vietnamese-Americans to get the client count to justify a leadership position that would bring him millions of dollars in additional attorney’s fees.
The plaintiffs also claim that Watts already is costing them money. When BP sued, it asked the court to stop paying a second round of settlement payments to seafood claimants. BP claimed it relied on Watts’ claims of representing more than 40,000 deckhands when it agreed to pay seafood claimants a total of $2.3 billion.
But, as the Vietnamese plaintiffs also note in their lawsuit, the validity of Watts’ client list was called into question by The Times and former claims czar Ken Feinberg long before the settlement.
Also, plaintiffs lawyers said the $2.3 billion seafood fund was calculated based on an analysis of annual catch and earnings across the industry, not on the number of eligible claimants.