As accountants go, Vandale Thomas was all flash, no pocket protector.
The man who did the books for New Orleans Traffic Court lived in high style, rolling up to casinos in slick rides and laying down hefty sums at the tables, earning elite high-roller status playing roulette and blackjack.
Over four years at one casino alone, Belle of Baton Rouge, Thomas brought $1.3 million to the tables, a casino official testified Tuesday at Thomas’ federal trial on 11 counts of theft and money laundering.
In 2008, he met Montrelle Williams, a dealer at Masquerade, a “party pit” gambling area at Harrah’s Casino on Canal Street. Although Thomas was married, they hooked up, and soon he was lavishing money and gifts on her, Williams testified.
He also asked her to help him out by entering Traffic Court receipts into a QuickBooks accounting software program from her apartment.
Williams said she never took money for the work and never logged her hours. Income for “bookkeeping services” showed up on her taxes only after a desperate Thomas pleaded with her to let him refile them in 2011, just as the heat was bearing down over the size of his billings to the court. By then, they’d split, she said, after Thomas told her his wife in Prairieville was pregnant.
“Van came over asking to come in. I didn’t let him in. He said some people probably would come and question him. He said he needed to do my taxes over. He said I needed to claim some of the money he had given me,” Williams told a jury Tuesday.
“Anything else Mr. Thomas said while he was at the door?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Payne asked.
“He was in trouble.”
Williams, who now lives out of state, said Thomas ended up refiling her taxes for 2009 to include $10,800 in bookkeeping income, also deducting thousands for phantom expenses such as travel and transportation. All of it was bogus, she testified.
“I didn’t work for Van,” she said. “I dated Van.”
With her testimony and that of casino officials, federal prosecutors sought to show a jury that Thomas was too busy gambling to work all the hours he claimed on his invoices to the court, and that he then tried to cover his tracks.
Prosecutors claimed Thomas billed the court for so many hours that he seemed to have little or no time left for sleep, let alone other activities.
They said he duped the judges and court staff by presenting checks with relatively small dollar figures for their signatures — often just small enough to skirt federal bank reporting requirements.
Thomas, meanwhile, argues that he did all of the work he claimed, and that all of it was fully endorsed by the court, on more than 170 checks that the judges — mostly Chief Judge Robert Jones III — signed for him. Thomas, 41, also served as Jones’ campaign treasurer while acting as the court’s chief financial officer.
And Thomas, whose authorized contracts with the court and the city added up to less than half of what he billed, claims he actually saved the city money and headaches by revamping a shoddy collection system for traffic fines that threatened to cause false arrests of law-abiding citizens.
Also testifying Tuesday were Ezekiel Nash and Kenneth Pailet, heads of a pair of accounting firms for which Thomas worked under contracts with Traffic Court before hanging out his own shingle and taking over the work himself.
Prosecutors said Thomas double-billed the court for some of his work for those firms while reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars under their contracts.
Court officials have said they dispensed with the two firms because of exorbitant billing. But then, in 2008, they hired Thomas — the man who did the bulk of that billing while working under the two firms — in what prosecutors painted as an ethically sketchy arrangement.
Nash testified Tuesday that Thomas did excellent work under the earlier arrangement. While he questioned some of Thomas’ billings, he said, he trusted him to handle the bulk of the Traffic Court work.
New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office detailed some of Thomas’ rampant billings in a scathing report on the court three years ago. Since then, other reports, including a recent one by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office, went into further detail on what added up to $1.3 million in payments over a three-year span.
Thomas faces as much as 10 years in prison if he’s convicted.
The money-laundering allegations against him include the purchase of more than $20,000 in casino chips at Harrah’s in September 2010 and $11,680 he spent a month later in a down payment on a Bentley GT Coupe valued at $80,000.
On Tuesday, prosecutors led Elizabeth Campbell, the Baton Rouge casino official, through detailed charts on Thomas’ playing habits at the casino, where she said he logged nearly 900 hours in play from 2008 through 2011.
Campbell said she couldn’t tally Thomas’ winnings — only what he brought to the table.
Paul Brown, Thomas’ attorney, asked Campbell if someone else might have used Thomas’ player’s card at the Belle of Baton Rouge, thus inflating his playing hours.
“Mr. Vandale Thomas was a known player,” she responded. “Every pit boss that we have has been working for the casino for 20-years plus. They would have known he was a known player.”
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