Two New Orleans Traffic Court judges who signed more checks to accountant Vandale Thomas than any of their colleagues took the witness stand in federal court Wednesday to insist that their signatures didn’t mean they had approved of the vast sums Thomas was billing the court, or that they could possibly keep track as the invoices quickly exceeded Thomas’ contract limits.
Judge Mark Shea portrayed himself as powerless to verify that Thomas, who stands accused of 11 counts of theft and money laundering, was even conducting the work for which he was billing the court.
“I’d have no way of doing that,” Shea said. He added that Thomas would often approach him while he was on the bench during court proceedings to secure his signature on the checks.
Both Shea and Chief Administrative Judge Robert Jones III dismissed a suggestion by Thomas that he had reached an unwritten deal for more work from former Chief Judge Dennis Dannel, who died in January 2011 after a long battle with cancer.
Federal prosecutors accuse Thomas, 41, of raiding the Traffic Court coffers that he was tasked with overseeing, to the tune of more than $1.3 million over three years, and then blowing a big chunk of it on high-stakes casino gambling from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, New Jersey.
At best, the contracts Thomas worked under authorized him to receive up to $627,000, less than half the amount for which he billed the court, mostly in amounts below the $10,000 threshold that would have triggered federal bank reporting requirements, prosecutors say.
“All contracts with Vandale were done in writing,” Shea testified. “Knowing Judge Dannel, I don’t think he would have entered into an oral contract with anyone.”
Jones described Dannel as having “an extreme view toward guarding public monies,” to the extent that he would not avail himself of the city-funded car offered to the judges and wouldn’t even drink a taxpayer-funded soda.
Much of the money Thomas billed came out of the city’s share of traffic fine revenues, under what appeared to be an informal side arrangement with the city for work related to fixing a Traffic Court billing system. By the time the city formally agreed to pay $150,000 for that work in April 2010, Thomas had cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars — money that was deducted from the city’s Traffic Court receipts.
According to Jones, Thomas told him of the side arrangement in April 2011, around the time Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office was digging into the court’s finances.
“I’m not sure that Vandale elaborated on what the arrangement was,” Jones said. “He said to me, ‘Judge, you may not have been aware of the fact that I earned $150,000 from the city for doing additional work.’ ”
Jones was spared a grilling Wednesday over his apparently lax oversight of the billings by Thomas, a former Mississippi State basketball player who would become a member of Jones’ softball team, in addition to his campaign treasurer.
That’s because prosecutors are presenting Thomas as a rogue accountant who purposefully deceived the court by limiting his payments to relatively low sums.
Even Thomas’ attorney, Paul Brown, declined to confront Jones directly over the fact he signed more than half the checks to Thomas, who became Jones’ campaign treasurer after he saw the judge in his chambers one day struggling with his financial disclosure statements, Jones said.
“He said, ‘Judge, why are you doing that? That’s what I do for a living,’ ” Jones told the jury. “Vandale is a very, very nice guy.”
He was nice to the casinos as well, according to an executive with Caesars Entertainment Corp., parent company of Harrah’s. Thomas lost about $227,000 in 2008 alone at the company’s casinos in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Biloxi and Tunica, Mississippi.
For his troubles, the casino awarded him “seven-star” status, an elite high-roller designation that allowed him free hotel rooms and other benefits. He went on to lose about $67,000 more at the company’s casinos over the next three years. Earlier testimony showed that Thomas also frequented the Belle of Baton Rouge casino, where he carried $1.3 million to the tables over four years.
Among Thomas’ money-laundering schemes, prosecutors allege, was his purchase in 2010 of a Bentley GT Coupe with a down payment from a loan he secured at Liberty Bank.
Shea recalled seeing Thomas at Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans from a distance, seated at a table. When he asked Thomas about the “nice Bentley Coupe” he was driving, he said, Thomas told him he’d gotten the luxury vehicle from a former college roommate who had made it to the NBA.
Prosecutors suggested that Thomas had been taking advantage of the court’s judicial administrator, Louis Ivon, a former police officer and District Attorney’s Office investigator who was becoming ill and would die in late 2012 at the age of 78. Ivon, who co-signed most of the checks to Thomas, tried to deflect any blame before his death, saying he had confronted Thomas over his billings and that ultimately it was the judges who made the call on paying the accountant.
Asked how Thomas, the court’s chief financial officer, had managed to overbill Traffic Court by more than $600,000 over three years, Shea replied, “He was writing the checks.”
Federal prosecutors Brian Klebba, Marquest Meeks and Matthew Payne wrapped up their case against Thomas on Wednesday, the third day of the federal trial.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said the defense case would start Thursday morning. Whether Thomas will take the witness stand is unclear.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.