NEW ORLEANS — This is Part 3 of Mike Perlstein's investigative series: Highway Robbery. Watch Part 1 and Part 2.

Sean Alfortish owns racehorses. And he recently was listed as an agent for Medport, a company based in Nevada, where Alfortish owns a luxury condominium on the legendary Las Vegas Strip.

Vanessa Motta is a former Hollywood stunt woman who graduated from Loyola Law School in 2015. She now works as a personal injury attorney.

Together, the pair comes across as a vibrant and successful couple. Real estate records show that last year, she purchased a house in Lakeview for $1.25 million. Alfortish listed the house as his mailing address in his Vegas condo records.

So how is this local couple part of the sprawling federal investigation into 18-wheeler accidents being scrutinized for possible fraud?

Court records show that Motta has represented more people claiming to be hit by freight trucks in a shorter period of time than some long-established attorneys whose advertisements have made them household names.

“We're not talking about the billboards, we're not talking about the lawyers who non-stop have commercials on television,” WWL-TV legal analyst Chick Foret said, referring to Motta.

A cluster of similar New Orleans truck accident lawsuits filed by Motta and other accident attorneys over the past few years are now under federal scrutiny.

The months-long FBI investigation began after defense attorneys for trucking companies began filing counter-claims accusing the plaintiffs of staging accidents to fraudulently collect from lawsuits.

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A grand jury last month handed up the first indictment in the probe, charging five people with creating an accident, filing a lawsuit blaming the truck driver, then collecting damages for injuries. In that case, a local attorney was implicated as being on the phone with the alleged mastermind of the scheme shortly before the accident, then paying the ringleader $7,500 immediately afterward.

As part of the sprawling investigation, federal judges have halted eight similar accident lawsuits from going forward in civil court because they are being scrutinized as possible fraud.

Of those eight cases, Motta is representing clients in five of them. No other attorney has more than one.

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The cases were flagged as trucking companies fought back in court against the lawsuit claims, raising suspicions by showing that many of the same people, along with relatives and friends, were involved in accidents along the same stretches of highway in eastern New Orleans.

With Motta actively enrolled in five of those cases, many in the legal community are wondering how an attorney fresh out of laws school landed so many complex and potentially lucrative cases so quickly.

“How does someone just out of law school, and I say just three years ago out of law school, accumulate all of these same type cases?” Foret asked.

Alfortish – described as Motta’s “fiancé” in some court documents – was an attorney himself before he was disbarred in 2014. His law license was revoked after he pleaded guilty in a federal fraud case in which he admitted rigging an election to remain as president of a non-profit association for horse-racing professionals and track workers.  He served 28 months in prison before his release in 2017.

As a medical financer with Medport, Alfortish now has been brought into some of the lawsuits being contested by defense attorneys as fraudulent. A medical financer pays a portion of an injured patient’s medical bills up front in exchange for a larger payout if that patient collects damages in a lawsuit.

“He is involved in providing the medical treatment, funding of the medical treatment, to these alleged injured parties,” Foret said.

A number of emails, entered into the court record as defense exhibits, show Alfortish approving medical treatment to truck-injury lawsuit plaintiffs on behalf of Medport.

In a defense of one 2018 accident lawsuit, attorneys claim in court filings that one of the injured passengers was on the phone with Alfortish one hour before the accident.

“I think we need to get to the bottom of it all,” said Randy Guilliot, owner of Triple G Express Trucking. As newly elected chairman of the American Trucking Association Guilliot has made combatting accident fraud a top priority, going as far as mounting video cameras on his fleet of more than 100 trucks to catch scam artists in action.

In some of Motta’s cases, including those under federal investigation, court records show she stayed enrolled in the lawsuits even while other more seasoned plaintiff’s attorneys have withdrawn.

“It is inexplicable to me why she would stay on the record of these cases where many other lawyers have jumped ship,” WWL-TV legal analyst Chick Foret said.

Motta’s attorney, Dane Ciolino, said he’s been assured that his client is not the target of the federal investigation. He said he is pushing for the probe to be resolved quickly.

“We need to have the opportunity to have these cases reviewed and adjudicated,” Ciolino said. “Right now, it's a swirl of allegations, rumors, but there's been no judicial finding by anyone that any fraud has been committed by any of these lawyers.”

The FBI and U.S. Attorneys office declined to comment on the status of their investigation.

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So, is there a rash of truck accidents being staged, as the trucking companies claim? Is last month’s indictment an isolated case, or are the similar circumstances in dozens of other cases just a matter of coincidence?

LSU economics professor Helmut Schneider is an expert in accident analytics. He said there are well-established statistical findings that staged accidents have more passengers on average than other accidents, part of the scheme to collect as much damages as possible in a lawsuit.

“It is well known in the literature that, for instance, staged crashes have an increased number of occupants,” Schneider said.

An analysis by Dr. Schneider on behalf of defense attorneys compared side-swipe crashes involving 18-wheelers in New Orleans to all interstate crashes in Louisiana. His findings revealed a remarkable aberration.

Schneider said the average number of occupants in all crashes is 1.4 per vehicle.

“It hasn't changed much from year to year, or from parish to parish,” he said. “There are 1.4 occupants in a car in a crash.”

But the average number of passengers in New Orleans truck crashes is nearly double that baseline average, Schneider said.  

“It peaked in 2017 with 2.6 passengers and the finding is statistically very significant,” he said. “To put odds on it, for that to happen by chance, it's one in a billion.”

“One in a billion with a ‘B’,“ he emphasized. “It's not happening by chance. So something else must explain that increase. And this situation is different because it is located at a specific stretch of the interstate. It's not sprinkled throughout.”

So with questions swirling, many local accident attorneys just want the controversy resolved once and for all.

“I'm concerned about the damage that it is doing to us, to the plaintiff bar,” said prominent accident attorney Mike Brandner.

Brandner, who advertises extensively, says he withdraws from any cases that seem suspicious, even if he has invested time and money in pressing a lawsuit.

“If we find out there's a question there, then we get out,” Brandner said.

With a shadow being cast on his industry by the federal investigation, Brandner said he would like the shadow lifted as quickly as possible, regardless of what is exposed.

“If the U.S. Attorney finds something and they find the wrongdoing,” Brandner said, “then I think something needs to be done, hopefully sooner than later.”

Anyone who pays for car insurance in Louisiana also has a stake in the federal investigation. Drivers in the state pay an average of $600 a year more because of the level of fraudulent accident claims, according to state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.

“This (investigation) will hopefully have a chilling effect on that industry, that soft tissue industry as I call it,” Donelon said. “I would hope that bringing some of them to justice…would have that effect.

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