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Lawyer Charged With Making False BP Claims

SAN ANTONIO (CN) - A high-profile Texas trial lawyer has been indicted on charges that he made false claims and committed identity theft in his recovery of damages against BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A Mississippi federal grand jury indicted Mikal Watts, 48, on allegations that he inflated the number of clients he represented in claims against BP in order to secure a sought-after seat on the committee of lawyers that helps run the BP settlement litigation.

The indictment remains under seal, but Watts' attorney Robert McDuff, confirmed the news on Wednesday. He said Watts will make his initial appearance in a Gulfport courtroom on Oct. 29.

A federal judge in 2010 appointed Watts and 18 other attorneys to the plaintiffs' steering committee of the BP oil spill multidistrict litigation. He stepped down from the committee in 2013 when the Secret Service began investigating him.

The indictment represents what could be a fall from grace for Watts, a San Antonio attorney and dominant figure in Texas politics for his ability to rake in big bucks for national and local Democrats. His federal financial contribution list reads like a who's who of leading Democrats, including President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and several members of Congress.

He flirted with a run for the U.S. Senate in 2008 against Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, before abandoning his bid in the exploratory phase.

The Texan's troubles began to spill out in February 2013 when local media reported that his San Antonio law firm had been raided by the Secret Service. Besides protecting the president and his family, the Secret Service also investigates financial crimes and fraud.

BP sued Watts that same year, alleging that more than half of the thousands of clients he claimed to represent were "phantoms."

"After years of waiting, I will now have my day in court," Watts said in a statement Wednesday.

"I look forward to a speedy trial and the opportunity to prove to a jury that I am not guilty of any crimes. I have spent my professional life working hard to protect the rights of those victimized by corporations like BP. When this trial is over, I look forward to getting back on the job, and to working for years to come," he said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Mississippi declined to comment on the indictment.

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in 2010 killed 11 workers and dumped an estimated 4.2 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department and five Gulf states announced that a $20 billion final settlement had been reached. Once approved by a federal judge, the settlement will resolve all civil penalties stemming from the blast.

Watts is nationally recognized for his litigation against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Company that resulted in significant product liability settlements.

That case involved allegations that Ford installed defective Bridgestone/Firestone tires on its SUVs, resulting in blowouts that caused accidents, injuries and deaths in North America and Mexico.

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