San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts walked out of court a free man Thursday after being investigated for more than three years and put on trial for almost five weeks in a massive BP fraud case.
A jury acquitted Watts, two associates in his law firm and two BP claims workers on 66 charges of conspiring to commit fraud, mail fraud, identity theft and aggravated identity theft.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, working with an attorney from the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, managed to win convictions against only two defendants — Gregory Warren of Lafayette, La., and Thi Houng “Kristy” Le of Grand Bay, Ala. Watts was paying Warren and Le to find clients injured by the BP oil catastrophe in 2010.
The jury concluded Warren and Le, who set up a claims office in Biloxi, turned over to Watts the names and personal information of people who had not been injured in the spill, were dead or didn’t exist. Warren and Le were each found guilty on all 66 charges filed against them, including conspiracy, fraud and identity theft. The jury found know no evidence Watts and his associates in Texas knew the “clients” were bogus.
Never miss a local story.
Also acquitted were Watts’ brother, David Watts, and Wynter Lee, non-attorneys who work in his firm; Hector “Eloy” Guerra of Texas, a liaison between the firm and the Biloxi claims office; and Le’s sister-in-law, Thi Hoang “Abby” Nguyen, of Grand Bay.
Mikal Watts stood facing the jurors as a court clerk called out the verdict on the 66 charges, which took about 15 minutes for each defendant. When he heard the first “not guilty,” he mouthed to the jury, “Thank you.” As “not guilty” continued to ring out, he bowed his head and closed his eyes.
He put his hand over his face and sat down when the clerk finished. He began to cry only when the clerk read the same “not guilty” findings for his brother. The gallery of about 45 friends and relatives of the defendants remained silent, as U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. had admonished everyone to do before the verdict forms were read.
U.S. marshals took Warren and Le into custody as soon as the trial ended. They are set for sentencing Nov. 22.
Mikal Watts said afterward he thought the jury got the verdict right.
“I think it was dead on,” he said. “I think two people ripped us off. They stole 15,000 identifications and made up 7,000.”
By the time Mikal Watts took on the BP claims, he had amassed millions and was widely known for representing injured clients, most notably in litigation against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co.
In the BP case, government prosecutors spent four years investigating the Watts firm and associates. His reputation and livelihood were at stake after the media reported in 2013 that his law office had been searched.
Mikal Watts took a risk, other lawyers said, when he decided to represent himself in the criminal trial. He said after the trial he is done with criminal law and ready to return to his civil practice.
“People that I trusted decided to steal a lot of money from me,” he said. “Obviously, in the future, I’m going to be careful about the people I spend money with.”
Remy Orozco of Gulfport, court-appointed attorney for Nguyen, said his client worked only part-time in the BP office and did not even sign up clients.
Although she was innocent, Orozco said, she might have been convicted without Mikal Watts’ resources and the know-how of Michael McCrum, the criminal attorney who represented David Watts.
K.C. Hightower of Gulfport, who represented Wynter Lee, said, “The jury absolutely did the right thing.”
Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99