New Orleans attorney charged in federal probe of brazen staged-accident scheme
By John Simerman
U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser announced the first felony charges against a New Orleans attorney in a blockbuster federal probe into “slammers,” “spotters,” and the vehicle collisions they allegedly staged involving tractor trailers and buses over several years.
The charges announced Thursday against lawyer Danny Keating, though hardly a surprise, mark a dramatic development in an investigation that has produced public charges against 32 defendants, unfurled over the course of several indictments. Strasser announced the new indictment in a rare news conference outside the federal courthouse on Poydras Street.
Until now, lawyers accused of working with street-level “slammers” to orchestrate perhaps hundreds of staged crashes in the New Orleans area hadn’t been charged and weren’t identified by name in federal court records. Keating has been referred to in federal court documents as “Attorney A.”
Some of their identities have been revealed and confirmed since, gleaned through civil court filings and other records. A recently filed civil lawsuit accused Keating and two alleged accomplices, both of whom have pleaded guilty in the federal criminal case, of racketeering.
The sprawling case has opened a window to a brazen racket that allegedly involved many New Orleans-area residents volunteering to risk injury, and in some cases surgery, for cash.
In various groups, led over several years by a series of slammers, the scheme called for packing vehicles with willing participants and driving into major wrecks.
Slammers like Damian Labeaud and Cornelius Garrison III — who appeared to work their alleged schemes separately, in cahoots with different lawyers – would do the driving, then jump into a getaway car driven by a “spotter.”
One of the remaining passengers would then slide behind the wheel, with lawsuits to follow.
Prosecutors allege they were aided by lawyers who would advise them on how to maximize the payout, including recommendations for choosing surgery afterward.
Lawyers who defend insurance companies began seeing a steep rise in those commercial vehicle accidents, and in the same locations, mostly along the stretch of Interstate 10 leading out of downtown into New Orleans East.
Those lawyers connected the dots and began challenging those big-ticket accident claims in civil court, later spurring the federal investigation.
The white-collar probe took on a dark specter in September, when Garrison, an allegedly prolific slammer, was shot dead at age 54 inside his apartment in the Gentilly neighborhood.
His slaying came four days after his name appeared atop an indictment naming nine defendants in an alleged staged-accident scheme.
Authorities fear it was a hit job to stymie the prosecution.
Garrison’s attorney, federal public defender Claude Kelly, has said his client had feared for his life in the weeks before he was killed. Kelly declined to say whether Garrison had been helping the government.
The indictmeNnt says Garrison earned $150,000 over the course of dozens of crashes, with the help of an attorney since identified as Vanessa Motta, and her fiancé, disbarred lawyer Sean Alfortish. Neither Motta nor Alfortish has been charged.
In the meantime, several other defendants in the probe have pleaded guilty, including Labeaud.
The most recent guilty pleas came last month. Roderick Hickman, 49, of Baton Rouge, Bernell Gale, 43, of Raceland, and Troy Smith, 56, of Houma, each pleaded guilty to mail fraud for their roles in the scam.
Authorities claim Hickman played a central role as organizer, slammer and spotter, including pretending to be a witness to accidents staged by others.
Their pleas only drew the federal crosshairs tighter on the attorneys who allegedly conspired with those accident-stagers to profit from the settlement fees on manufactured wrecks.