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Texas lawyer seeks hold on BP spill suit

NEW ORLEANS – A Texas lawyer being sued by oil giant BP over allegations that he falsely claimed to represent thousands of deckhands who lost money in the 2010 Gulf oil spill has asked a federal court to delay the lawsuit while a criminal investigation plays out.

Friday’s filing on behalf of Mikal Watts says federal officials have seized and copied material from Watts’ law firm regarding oil spill claims. Watts’ attorney, Robert McDuff, says in the filing that there is a “real, appreciable and non-speculative prospect” for an indictment of people involved with the case in the federal Southern District of Mississippi. He said he expects to know whether there will be an indictment within two months.

McDuff said that if the BP suit continues while the criminal investigation is underway, he would advise Watts not to testify in depositions regarding the lawsuit.

Watts was appointed to serve on a team of attorneys who negotiated a multibillion-dollar settlement with BP in 2012 to compensate businesses, residents and fishermen affected by the spill. He resigned from the committee last year amid the federal investigation.

In a statement released late Friday, BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said that Watts’ possible refusal to answer questions in a deposition about “whether he committed a fraud on BP and the Court in connection with seafood claims and their settlement ... is stunning.”

The statement added that, “Until the full scope of Mr. Watts’ fraud is understood, the Court should stay further payments of Seafood Fund monies.”

BP PLC’s December lawsuit alleges that many of the Social Security numbers on Watts’ client list were phony.

McDuff has strongly denied that Watts engaged in fraud or identity theft.

“Contrary to the allegations, Mr. Watts did not commit identity theft or fraud,” McDuff said in a statement earlier this month. “He is a lawyer who has spent his life representing the victims of corporate wrongdoing. He devoted thousands of hours to uncovering the misdeeds of BP that led to the oil spill that disrupted the lives of many thousands of people who live in the region.”

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