Lawyers in BP Spill Claims Probe Hire Defense Counsel
Amanda Bronstad writes for The National Law Journal, an American Lawyer affiliate.
Lawyers targeted in a special report over suspected money laundering and other crimes linked to the $9.6 billion Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement with BP PLC have retained white-collar criminal attorneys as they prepare to object to the findings.
The four lawyers—Jonathan Andry, Glen Lerner, Lionel "Tiger" Sutton and Sutton’s wife, Christine Reitano—were referred to federal authorities by a special master whose September 6 report concluded they may have engaged in a kickback scheme involving claims filed on behalf of certain clients.
Specifically, former FBI director Louis Freeh, hired by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to investigate potential corruption in the claims process, concluded that Reitano and Sutton, both former senior lawyers for claims administrator Patrick Juneau, accepted fees for a client that they referred to The Andry Law Firm in New Orleans. Lerner and Andry, part owner of The Andry Law Firm, are principals of Andry Lerner in New Orleans.
Barbier gave all four lawyers and The Andry Law Firm until Friday to object to the report and explain why they should not be disqualified from representing oil spill claimants.
Lerner, who also maintains a Las Vegas practice at Glen J. Lerner & Associates, has retained criminal defense attorney William Taylor, founding partner of Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington. Taylor’s clients have included the former Milberg Weiss, which, along with four senior partners, entered a plea to paying kickbacks to lead plaintiffs.
Taylor, handling the case with partner Amit Mehta, declined to comment.
Lerner also has retained three lawyers from Jones Walker, including New Orleans partner Pauline Hardin. Hardin, a former federal prosecutor whose practice involves criminal defense and kickback statutes in the health care industry, did not return a call for comment.
Andry has retained Lewis Unglesby of the Unglesby Law Firm in Baton Rouge, La., a criminal defense attorney who also handles products liability cases.
“Mr. Andry is a fine young lawyer who’s guilty of absolutely no misconduct ethically, nor legally,” Unglesby said. “He’s vigorously represented his clients. The facts in this report are partial snippets of the truth, do not tell the whole story and misconstrue innocent behavior. There is an absolute explanation for all of this that has nothing to do with bribery or misconduct on behalf of anyone involved in the claims office. We are anxious to get to court where the rule requires a brand new hearing with evidence and witnesses so that we can rebut piece by piece that report.”
He accused BP of using the findings "to benefit itself and avoid its responsibilities” under the settlement. “The report itself says unequivocally that they found no misconduct within the claims office, no alteration of any claims, exaggeration of any claims or special treatment of any claims. That should be the end of it.”
Three lawyers at Schonekas, Evans, McGoey & McEachin in New Orleans represent The Andry Law Firm. One of those lawyers, William "Billy" Gibbens, a former federal prosecutor, did not return a call for comment.
Reitano, meanwhile, has retained Mary Olive Pierson, a solo practitioner in Baton Rouge, who did not return a call for comment. Reitano filed an initial objection on Wednesday, asserting violation of her due-process rights, in part because she first obtained a copy of Freeh’s report from The Wall Street Journal, not the court. She maintained that she did not represent any oil spill claimants, or accept any fees on behalf of former oil spill clients, after Juneau hired her on April 1, 2012.
She called Freeh’s report replete with "over-and far-reaching conclusions, verdict and sentencing recommendations" and demanded discovery materials. She sought an extension of the deadline to fully object, as well as an evidentiary hearing.
Andry brought a similar request for extension on Wednesday.
While Barbier hasn’t ruled on those requests, he granted similar extensions to The Andry Law Firm, which has a $7.8 million claim for oil spill losses, and Lerner, whose firm has been seeking to lift a freeze on payments to its 489 oil spill clients. On Wednesday, he set a new deadline of October 18 for The Andry Law Firm and Lerner to object to the report.
Freeh also agreed to provide discovery materials in redacted form to The Andry Law Firm; Barbier ordered that those materials be provided by Friday.