GULFPORT -- The last of seven defendants in the biggest BP claims fraud case to date, Thi Houng "Kristy" Le, has pleaded not guilty to 95 felony charges.
Le was represented in U.S. District Court on Monday morning by Public Defender John Weber because, she said, she could not afford an attorney. Weber said he has been representing the Grand Bay, Ala., resident for two years during the investigation of the case.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert H. Walker released Le, 33, on an unsecured bond of $25,000, which she will have to pay in cash if she fails to appear in court.
All seven defendants are scheduled to be tried together in the court term beginning Dec. 7, although they could ask for more time to prepare their cases.
Never miss a local story.
The government alleges the seven defendants, including San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts, conspired to submit fraudulent claims over the BP oil catastrophe in April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. The indictments outlines 95 charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, identity theft and aggravated identity theft filed against all seven defendants.
Two charged are employees of Watts' law firm Watts, Guerra and Craft: Mikal Watts' brother David Watts and mass-injury coordinator Wynter Lee, neither of whom are attorneys. The other defendants are Gregory P. Warren of Lafayette, La., who partnered with Le to set up a Biloxi office for handling BP claims; Hector Eloy Guerra of Weslaco, Texas, who ran a company called JEG Development; and Thi Hoang "Abbie" Nguyen of Grand Bay, Le's sister-in-law, who allegedly worked with the Biloxi claims operation.
Nguyen is the only other defendant with a court-appointed attorney.
Mikal Watts allegedly paid Warren, Le and Nguyen more than $10 million for gathering names and personal information used in BP claims. The indictment outlines more than $3 million in payments to Guerra. The payments were wired to an unnamed Jackson attorney, who then wired the money to Warren, the indictment alleges. Warren and Le were partners in K&G Consulting, the company that set up the Biloxi claims office, according to the government.
The law firm's BP client roster allegedly included 40 individuals identified as deckhands on commercial fishing vessels and one owner of a commercial vessel, none of whom actually worked in the industry and one of whom had died in 2007. In addition to the 41 unnamed victims, the indictment says four other claimants died before the catastrophe and a fifth, "Lucy Lu" was a dog.
The indictment also outlines emails indicating the Watts brothers knew there were problems with the claimants whose names were being submitted. In all, the law firm said it represented more than 41,000 BP claimants. In the end, the government contends, only four of the claimants were eligible for BP payments.
Attorney Robert McDuff of Jackson, who represents Mikal Watts, said his client was unaware that BP claims were being fabricated.