August 31, 2023

Sentencing in Louisiana staged truck accident case now a December doubleheader


Thursday was going to be a big day in the history of the Louisiana staged accident case: A ringleader was going to be sentenced.

But that has been pushed to Dec. 7, when now two key players in the scam are to learn their sentences.

Damian Labeaud, who court documents show directed much of the on-the-ground planning for the staged collisions with trucks in the New Orleans area, was to be sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. 

The latest sentencing delay is the second for Labeaud after a guilty plea on wire fraud and mail fraud charges that was finalized three years ago.

Both Labeaud’s attorney and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District requested the delay. Labeaud is free while awaiting sentencing.

Dec. 7 already was significant in the history of what federal prosecutors dubbed “Operation Sideswipe”: It is the date that attorney Danny Keating is set to be sentenced as well. Keating pleaded guilty in June 2021. He is the only attorney indicted in the case.

Keating and  Labeaud are the two most significant players in Operation Sideswipe who have pleaded guilty. The total number of guilty pleas, all on a variety of mail fraud or wire fraud charges, exceeds 40.

But descriptions by the U.S. attorney’s office of the people sentenced mostly tell the same story. The defendants were recruited by somebody else to ride along in the car, a “spotter” identified a truck as a collision target, a “slammer” drove the car into the truck (or in one case, a bus) and the passengers all claimed some degree of injury.

Many of the individuals who pleaded guilty received probation after their guilty pleas on mail fraud or wire fraud. Other sentences have varied widely, from six months to two years. No defendants have gone to trial, though there are still indictments, some of them recent, that have not yet been resolved. 

A husband and wife team got four years

But two people who received four years in prison, the husband and wife team of Anthony Robinson and Audrey Harris, recruited people to ride along in the cars that struck trucks, underwent unnecessary surgery to boost the payout from insurance and trucking companies, and collected large sums of money, according to the U.S. attorney. Robinson, according to the U.S. attorney’s office, received more than a half-million dollars.

And yet Labeaud, whose name comes up repeatedly as an organizer of collisions in the range of indictment and sentencing announcements from the U.S. attorney’s office, has been free for about three years after his guilty plea. Keating is the only lawyer who has been indicted and pleaded guilty. It’s been two-plus years since his plea.

Labeaud is a signatory to an August 2020 letter spelling out his plea agreement that specifies his maximum time in jail would be five years, one year longer than Robinson and Harris.

Robinson is jailed at a federal medical facility in Springfield, Massachusetts. Harris is at the Carswell Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Both are due for release next March, just two weeks apart. That is less than three years since their sentencing was announced on June 30, 2021.

What he did on the ground

The role of Labeaud as organizer was spelled out in the superseding indictment that led to the guilty plea.

Among the examples cited:

  • Labeaud and “attorney A” met and agreed that Labeaud would receive $1,000 per passenger for staged and “legitimate” accidents with trucks. If it wasn’t a truck, the payment would drop to $500. Labeaud and the attorney would discuss the planned accidents before they happened.
  • The attorney paid Labeaud for “at least” 40 collisions.
  • Attorney A instructed Labeaud to change the locations of the accidents, to not always have the same number of passengers and to not speak to police.
  • Labeaud collected much of the money upfront but with a deal that he would pay back some of it if the number of accidents didn’t justify the payment, the size of which was described only as “thousands of dollars.”

The continuing freedom of Labeaud three years after his guilty plea raises the question: why? And what about the other attorneys and possible medical personnel who were involved in Operation Sideswipe, including a bevy of attorneys who are identified in court documents only by letters: Attorneys A, B etc.? Will they see the inside of a courtroom?

Sources close to the U.S. attorney’s office who spoke to FreightWaves on condition of anonymity said a conspiracy case against those attorneys and doctors may be in the offing, but they rejected any suggestion that the prosecutors would go after the organizers under the  Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The punishment provisions in a conspiracy charge are similar to RICO and the latter can be harder to prove.

The sources also said that delays like that of Labeaud are not unusual in federal court and are not necessarily a sign that he is cooperating. But the speed at which Labeaud and Keating pleaded guilty relative to the rest of the guilty pleas that came later does suggest the two men may be hoping to hear the “magic words” in their sentencing reports: “substantial assistance.” A defendant facing sentencing who receives that sort of blessing from the U.S. attorney’s office sees an increased chance of a more lenient sentence, the sources said.

A judge hearing that designation might say, the sources said, “I am sentencing you for X amount of months or years lower than I normally would in recognition of your substantial assistance,” the sources said.

One indicted person in Operation Sideswipe will not be sentenced: Cornelius Garrison. He was shot dead in his home soon after he was indicted in September 2020, and it was widely believed he was cooperating with the investigation. No arrest was made in his slaying.

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The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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