NEW ORLEANS — Dozens of staged accidents. Scores of hustlers. Millions of dollars paid to settle fraudulent lawsuits with fake injury claims.
And, as a result, the entire state of Louisiana suffering from some of the highest car insurance rates in the country.
“It affects all of us,” former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg said. “It affects you and me and all of your listeners because we're all going to be paying more insurance as a result of these fraudulent claims.”
Authorities say the scam involves people packing into a car, intentionally side swiping a random 18-wheeler, then claiming injuries in a lawsuit that usually ends in a settlement paid by insurance companies.
The street-level organizers of the scheme, known as “slammers,” are the ones behind the wheel, creating the accident. After they ram their target, they jump out, putting someone else in the driver's seat.
“It's almost a suicidal occupation to be a slammer, to slam yourself into an eighteen-wheeler,” U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser said. “I have one word for you: It's outrageous.”
WWL-TV’s yearlong investigative series into the probe, “Highway Robbery,” has chronicled the indictment of 33 defendants by the U.S. Attorney's office, leading to 11 guilty pleas and counting. The case is now at a critical juncture, potentially exploding into one of the largest accident fraud cases of its kind.
“Every one of those pleas, you have to assume are people that are cooperating with the government and sharing information,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a non-profit criminal justice watchdog group.
This month, the sprawling case reached a critical point. While several attorneys have been linked to the scam defendants in previous indictments, veteran accident attorney Daniel Patrick Keating became the first to be indicted on Nov. 5.
In a rare public appearance, Strasser and local FBI Chief Bryan Vorndran held a press briefing to announce the indictment.
“As all attorneys do, Mr. Keating took an oath to uphold the United States Constitution and the laws of the state of Louisiana. But instead, he chose to violate those laws and his oath,” Vorndran said.
WWL-TV identified Keating as a target when more than a year ago. Now multiple sources tell us that Keating is cooperating with authorities. Further proof came last week when he voluntarily gave up his law license.
With Keating unmasked as the person listed as “Attorney A” in prior court documents, attention now turns to attorneys identified in the court records as B through E.
“All I can tell you is the investigation is continuing for attorneys A, B, C and so forth,” Strasser said.
Rosenberg said the case is unfolding in classic fashion: Indict the lower-level suspects, secure some guilty pleas and cooperation, then work your way up to higher-profile targets.
“It's just a classic approach by federal prosecutors to work their way up the ladder,” he said. “Those who come in early get the best (plea) deal because they have the ability to help the government.”
Multiple sources say that some of the other professionals implicated have consulted with A-list criminal defense attorneys in case they're next.
“I think most of them have, as they say, lawyered up and have retained defense counsel because they know the individuals who have been charged,” Rosenberg said.
Said Goyeneche, “That's an indication to me of being a little nervous and rightfully so.”
From previous “Highway Robbery” segments, WWL-TV connected attorney Vanessa Motta and her fiancé Sean Alfortish to accident lawsuits that have been flagged as fraudulent.
The couple is again identified by code in a recent indictment from September in which a known slammer and eight passengers were charged with staging accidents. The accused ringleader in that indictment is Cornelius Garrison, linked to more than 50 bogus accidents, including one where Motta settled his own personal injury claim for $650,000.
In an alarming development, Garrison was murdered four days after he was named in the indictment. That fatal shooting inside Garrison’s Mid-City apartment on Sept. 22 is now being looked at by the FBI.
“It's unusual to see the FBI bring in a task force just on a single murder,” Rosenberg said. “And that's apparently what happened in the aftermath of Mr. Garrison's murder.”
Garrison's indictment refers to Alfortish as “Co-Conspirator A,” noting that Alfortish provided office space for Motta at his Kenner building. Alfortish is a disbarred attorney who served time in federal prison after being convicted in an unrelated fraud case in which he rigged an election to remain president of the Louisiana Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Dane Ciolino, an attorney representing Motta, said he had nothing to add to his previous comments that his client is cooperating fully with authorities. Calls to Alfortish went unreturned.
Court records show that other indicted suspects, including some who pleaded guilty, were represented in accidents claims by the King Firm, located on Canal Street in New Orleans. The firm is one of the city’s better known personal injury law groups due to their frequent television commercials.
David Courcelle, an attorney representing the King Firm, said attorneys at the firm are careful to avoid claims that they think might be fraudulent.
“While we cannot comment on any particular case, we are one of the many law firms who represented people who are now charged,” Courcelle conceded. “The King Firm worked hard to uncover the truth and took appropriate action in all cases.”
As the heat gets turned up, Vorndran issued a warning.
“For the FBI,” he said, “this is warning to anyone who's involved in this scheme or any other schemes that we're looking and we're coming and if you're involved in this or something similar, you may want to have a few sleepless nights between now and a few months out.”