GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Seven people, including a Pascagoula woman, were indicted in the largest fraud identity theft case to date associated with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust.
The indictments were announced in a joint news conference with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Secret Service.
The focus was on Texas attorney Mikal Watts, who prosecutors say claimed more than 40,000 clients claimed to have suffered from the BP oil spill — 41 of which are listed in the indictment; with 18 from the Coast.
"Defendant Watts falsely claimed that each of these 41 victims were the deckhand on a commercial fishing vessel," U.S. Attorney Greg Davis during a press conference. "In fact, none of the 41 person worked on a commercial fishing vessel or even in the seafood industry at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill."
The indictment alleges the total amount of claims submitted by the defendants to BP was in excess of $2 billion. The defendants are facing 95 counts including conspiracy, identity theft and fraud.
Five of the seven appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Gargiulo for their initial appearance and arraignment. They include Mikal Watts; his brother David Watts; and Wynter Lee, all of San Antonio Texas; Hector Guerra of Harlingen, Texas; and Abbie Nguyen of Grand Bay, Alabama.
Kristy Le of Pascagoula and Greg Warren of Lafayette, La., who are accused of creating dozens of clients by illegally obtaining names, addresses, and social security numbers, were not present.
The feds say the "clients" never agreed to be represented by the legal firm.
Mikal Watts' attorney, Robert McDuff, says his client is innocent of the charges.
"We've read the indictment," McDuff said. "Mikal Watts and all of the defendants have pled not guilty. I think once we have a trial and all the evidence will come out, it will be clear that Mikal and everyone in his office did not do the things of which they are accused and we're looking forward to a trial."
Each of the defendants pleaded not guilty in court, and are free on a $25,000 appearance bond.