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Highway robbery | Man gets one of the longest sentences yet for his role in staged 18-wheeler crashes

In the end, millions of dollars in fraudulent insurance claims were paid out. Some defendants confessed to getting unnecessary surgeries to increase their payday.

NEW ORLEANS — When Roderick Hickman was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison last month, it marked one of the longest sentences yet in the massive case that federal authorities call “Operation Sideswipe.”

The sweeping probe exposed more than 100 accidents in which people packed into cars and intentionally collided with 18-wheelers. Most of the wrecks happened in the same narrow stretch of eastern New Orleans. Many of the resulting lawsuits were filed by the same network of accident attorneys.

In the end, tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent insurance claims were paid out. Some defendants actually confessed to getting unnecessary surgeries to increase their payday.

“Would you look for someone getting an unnecessary surgery, that that kind of boggles my mind,” said longtime personal injury attorney Edwin Shorty Jr.

Hickman admitted recruiting the passengers, and sometimes getting behind the wheel as a so-called “slammer.” He also confessed to steering cases to certain attorneys, some of whom are listed in code by prosecutors as Attorneys A, B, C, D and E.

“In the 60 years that me and my family have been handling this, we’ve never seen anything like this,” said personal injury attorney Megan Kiefer.

The scorecard for the feds in this case looks impressive at first glance: 52 people indicted, 44 guilty pleas, 24 defendants sentenced to prison. The investigation has become one of the largest fraud cases of its kind in the country.

But a closer look at Hickman’s sentence reveals an element of the absurd: He was ordered to pay trucking companies and their insurers more than $5.5 million in restitution at a rate of $250 a month. At that pace, his penalty won’t be paid off for 22,000 years. Several other defendants – mostly poor, mostly minorities – have been hit with the same uncollectable amounts.

$600 more a year for car insurance

“At the base level of the story, this is a story about greed,” Kiefer said.

That greed is calculated to cost every car insurance customer in Louisiana more than $600 a year. And while Operation Sideswipe exposed a multi-million dollar jackpot for attorneys who filed the now-exposed lawsuits, only one attorney has been charged: Daniel Patrick Keating.

“People got money from insurance companies. They staged some accidents. But what we’re seeing now, we have low-level poor people that are in prison,” Kiefer said. “What happens to the people that were clearly orchestrating these crimes that the low-level poor, mostly minority people have already pled guilty to perpetrating?”

Federal court documents clearly point to the attorneys who filed fraudulent claims. Defendants’ documented confessions, known in legal federal parlance as a “factual basis,” leave little doubt about the attorneys behind the lawsuits.

Many in the legal community are now wondering why U.S. Attorney’s office stopped short of indicting all but one of them.

Why only one attorney charged?

“I think everyone’s beside themselves,” Kiefer said. “We don’t understand it.”

Criminal defense attorney Craig Mordock has followed the case closely.

“Fifty-two defendants. And yet they still can’t get even one level above them, let alone the higher people in the conspiracy?” Mordock asked “It’s very head scratching.”

Even former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg questioned how the case has unfolded without ensnaring the attorneys who handled multiple fraudulent cases referred by the same scammers.

“Why are we just at the lowest level possible for most of these individuals?” Rosenberg asked. “Why aren’t we moving toward the top of the mountain rather than just scraping at the bottom of the mountain?”

The current posture of the case is a far cry from three years ago when then-U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the local FBI Chief at the time, Bryan Vorndran.

“For the FBI, this is warning to anyone who’s involved in this scheme or any other schemes that we’re looking and we’re coming and if you’re involved in this or something similar, you may want to have a few sleepless nights between now and a few months out,” said at the rare press briefing by Strasser.

With dozens of cooperating defendants, what stymied this case?

The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment, but WWL Louisiana exclusively obtained a piece of evidence that sources say played a significant role.

The evidence is a purported tape recording of Damian Labeaud, a confessed slammer and organizer who previously pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. Sources say the recording was taken while Labeaud was talking to accident attorneys he worked with.

“I can guarantee you on my life that I ain’t ever was going to do no fraud. Put me under. No sir, it ain’t no fraud. Nothing that I ever done,” the man on the tape says.

Kiefer and other attorneys question how that kind of evidence could derail a years-long federal investigation with dozens of other cooperating witnesses.

“The recording of someone saying, ‘Oh, no, I didn’t do it.’ Is that the standard now to get out of jail?” Kiefer asked.

Key witness killed in ‘targeted murder’

Some say another major blow to the case came when a  Labeaud-level slammer and cooperating witness, Cornelius Garrison, was fatally shot in 2020 days after he was indicted.

Strasser, as he left the U.S. Attorney’s office, candidly admitted that Garrison’s murder was a blow to the case.

“As you know, we were dealt a large setback by the targeted murder of one of our defendants,” Strasser said.

Rosenberg speculated that Garrison’s execution-style killing could have had a chilling effect on others who had been cooperating.

“Cornelius Garrison got killed on the day he was indicted,” Rosenberg said. “And maybe that was a deterrent to a number of people.”

Legally, prosecutors still have a window to indict more people as the clocks runs down. But the attorneys who filed the fraudulent cases have themselves hired some of the top criminal defense attorneys in the state.

And those lawyers, multiple sources say, have aggressively played offense to keep their clients out of trouble.

“When you have money, when you have power, when you can hire the best attorneys, you’re going to get a better shake,” Kiefer said. “And maybe that’s what we’re seeing here.” 

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