The bank accounts of New Orleans Traffic Court were flush, and accountant Vandale Thomas made the most of it, billing the court more than $750,000 above and beyond what his contracts called for over a three-year period ending in 2011, according to a report released Monday by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office.
The judges who signed his checks may have violated state law in the process, the report found.
Thomas, a former college basketball player who already faces criminal charges over his court dealings, cut dozens of checks to himself and got Traffic Court judges — most often Chief Administrative Judge Robert Jones — to sign them, the report says.
It found that in eight separate months from December 2008 to January 2011, Thomas racked up billings that would have had him working more than 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The report marks the latest attempt to tally the damage from a yearslong drain on Traffic Court accounts from payments to Thomas, who first worked as a contractor for a pair of accounting firms that appear also to have overbilled Traffic Court for his work under them. Thomas worked for the firm until 2008, then hung out his own shingle as a non-CPA accountant, taking the Traffic Court work with him under contracts that paled compared with what he ended up making.
But before then, the two firms — Pailet, Meunier and LeBlanc LLP and Nash Accounting and Tax Service — reaped more than $1.4 million without written contracts from the court from early 2006 to late 2008. Thomas worked for both firms at the same time, an arrangement that Purpera’s office questioned as a conflict.
The Nash firm did the accounting for the court, while the Pailet firm’s role was to “review the accounting process” and documentation for the court’s three funds. Thomas did the jobs for both firms.
Kenneth Pailet, a principal at Pailet, Meunier and LeBlanc, told Purpera’s office he was unaware that Thomas had been working for Nash at the same time.
The report also says Thomas appeared to bill for the same or overlapping work under separate invoices from each firm.
Working on his own, Thomas — who also did work at the same time for Municipal Court, the city and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office — was paid more than $1.3 million from Traffic Court for work billed from 2008 to 2011.
He had been contracted for less than half that amount. The report says Thomas also backdated a dozen invoices.
The exorbitant accounting costs first came to light in a 2011 report by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office.
Last November, a federal grand jury handed up a 12-count indictment accusing Thomas, 41, of embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion from his alleged bilking of the court.
The indictment alleges that Thomas used Traffic Court funds — largely from fees paid by scofflaws — to buy more than $20,000 in casino chips and plunk down an $80,000 down payment on a Bentley GT Coupe.
He’s also accused of trying to avoid throwing up red flags by using numerous banks and keeping his withdrawals under the $10,000 threshold that prompts automatic reporting to the IRS. Federal prosecutors say Thomas overbilled Traffic Court by more than $680,000.
A trial date in the case is set for Oct. 6.
In explaining the implausible hours, Thomas claimed he had hired four people to help with the Traffic Court accounting work, which court staffers have said largely involved taking fee payments from walk-ups and Internet and telephone systems, typing them into an accounting program and matching them up with the court’s bank statements.
But when Purpera’s office asked, one of the purported workers said he never did accounting work for Thomas, a second said she was never paid, and estimates of the work done by the two others left Thomas still averaging as much as 136 hours a week.
While Purpera’s office said it was hard to tell from vague invoices whether the court got any bang for its buck, the report said the judges at Traffic Court “may have violated state law and the state constitution, which prohibits the donation of public funds.”
So far, none of the judges have faced any legal fallout from the accounting scandal. Jones, who signed the most checks to Thomas, has placed blame on deceased Judge Dennis Dannel, who Thomas has claimed “verbally approved” additional work outside of his contract, work that jacked up his billings.
About one in seven checks from the court’s Judicial Expense Fund went to Thomas in 2009 and 2010, records show.
Jones, who had recruited Thomas to play on his softball team and hired him as his campaign treasurer, signed more than half of the checks to Thomas, totaling some $750,000.
Judge Mark Shea also signed dozens of checks to Thomas, adding up to more than $200,000.
Cosigning many of the checks was now-deceased Judicial Administrator Louis Ivon. According to the report, both Shea and Jones cited Ivon’s role in their explanation for the payouts.
“Both judges stated that they did not regularly review Mr. Thomas’ invoices prior to signing his checks because Mr. Thomas was their accountant and that, in most cases, the checks had already been signed by Mr. Ivon or another authorized signer,” the report says.
“Both judges also stated that Mr. Thomas rarely provided them with copies of his invoices when he presented the judges with checks payable to himself for approval. In addition, Judge Shea stated that Mr. Thomas regularly brought him checks for approval while he was actually conducting Traffic Court and that, as a result, he did not review the checks or supporting documentation prior to signing the checks.”
The report says Purpera’s office sent Thomas a letter in early June asking him to respond to the report, but he did not send a response.
The report can be found at www.lla.state.la.us.