Editor’s note: Desi Canela, a former Express-News journalist, is in Gulfport, Miss., for the federal fraud trial of San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts and six co-defendants. She is blogging as an unpaid observer who supports Watts and his team. Look for daily updates at www.mikalcwatts.com.
Six years ago, the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Texas was devastated by the largest oil spill in history when an offshore well operated by energy giant British Petroleum blew out one mile below the water’s surface. Eleven workers on the platform died, and 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf over the next 97 days as workers struggled to cap the well.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred about 42 miles offshore, and tides quickly began sweeping oil on to environmentally sensitive shores. In all, more than 1,300 miles of coastline across Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta, and Texas were damaged.
BP officials estimated losses stemming from the environmental disaster at nearly $62 billion.
Enter San Antonio’s Mikal Watts, a Texas trial lawyer who’s built his reputation and prosperity by taking on some of the biggest and most powerful multinational corporations in class-action lawsuits. His entry into the BP disaster on behalf of thousands of fishermen, coastal workers, and others hurt economically by the oil spill came as no surprise.
Watts’ firm and other attorneys reached a settlement with BP in which the company initially agreed to pay $2.3 billion to help compensate Gulf fishermen affected by the spill. In 2013, however, BP attorneys filed a civil lawsuit against Watts, claiming his firm fabricated the identities of thousands of clients.
Opening arguments are slated to begin Wednesday. I’ll be blogging throughout the trial as a former newspaper journalist and unpaid supporter of Watts and his team.
John Dowdy, interim U.S. Assistant Attorney in Mississippi, served as lead prosecutor in the case against Watts. Over the span of five years, Dowdy devoted his efforts exclusively to the case that targeted Watts and six co-defendants. Dowdy’s efforts have included select leaks to the media and a continuing investigation into Watts and his law firm’s work.
Two months before the trial was set to begin, Dowdy suddenly resigned from the case and his office, generating substantial speculation but no real explanation to date.
“John Dowdy interviewed witnesses, convened a grand jury, and told a federal judge as recently as January that this was the only case he was working on,” Watts said, suggesting the prosecutor’s abrupt departure could suggest internal disagreement over the case among Justice Department officials.
Watts’ trial opened Monday in the court of U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. in Gulfport, Miss. His fellow defendants include his brother David Watts, Wynter Lee, Gregory Warren, Hector Eloy Guerra, Thi Houng “Kristy” Le, and Thi Hoang “Abby” Nguyen. Following pretrial motions, jury selection is expected to be completed quickly, followed by opening arguments.
Watts will not just be watching from the defendants’ table. He has chosen to defend himself, citing his “constitutional right under the 6th Amendment,” despite ample advice from friends and colleagues not to do so.
He appears, however, to be off to a good start: Guirola dismissed 22 of the 95 counts in response to Watts’ pretrial motions.
With an acquittal, Watts will make legal history, or at the very least become one of the best legal stories of the year. A guilty verdict will generate more than a few people saying “I told you so” and leave Watts in danger of losing his law license and facing possible prison time.
If you would like an alternative viewpoint from the mainstream media, look for my postings at www.mikalcwatts.com.
Top image: San Antonio lawyer Mikal Watts (right) and Mike McCrum prepare for federal trial in which Watts will act as his own legal counsel in a Gulfport, Miss. conference room. Photo courtesy of Mikal Watts.