Vandale Thomas, a former Mississippi basketball star who won a modest contract to keep the books at New Orleans Traffic Court and wound up collecting some $1.3 million in checks signed by the judges over three years, was sentenced Wednesday to a three-year federal prison term.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval took into account Thomas’ rags-to-riches-to-casinos story in agreeing to a sentence that fell well below the guideline range of 51 to 63 months.
Thomas’ attorney, Timothy Meche, urged leniency, and U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office also weighed in for a lighter sentence.
“He’s a victim of circumstance, obviously a compulsive gambler, someone who has a serious addiction, as well as the lack of oversight in New Orleans Traffic Court,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Klebba said. “There was simply too much money he had access to, and no oversight.”
That’s not quite the story federal prosecutors told a jury last year during a trial in which Thomas, of Prairieville, was convicted on all 11 counts he faced in connection with a scheme to embezzle more than $680,000 from the court through inflated invoices that he claimed were the result of an oral contract with a now-deceased judge.
Two other judges, Mark Shea and Robert Jones III — who would enlist Thomas to play on his softball team and be his campaign treasurer — signed the bulk of the 170 checks to Thomas from 2008 to 2011. Both judges testified for the government that they couldn’t have known that Thomas was billing wildly above his contract caps.
Thomas, who is not a certified public accountant, claimed that much of his work involved fixing the court’s electronic system for paying fines. He said former Chief Judge Dennis Dannel, who died in 2011 after a long battle with cancer, had verbally approved the extra work.
Thomas’ authorized contracts with the court and the city added up to less than half of what he billed, and Thomas admitted he used much of the proceeds to feed a raging gambling addiction.
His habit saw him drop hundreds of thousands of dollars at various casinos in New Orleans; Baton Rouge; Biloxi, Mississippi; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Las Vegas as he raked in billings from the court, going from judge to judge to secure their signatures.
Over four years at one casino alone, Belle of Baton Rouge, Thomas brought $1.3 million to the tables, a casino official testified.
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 as a down payment on a Bentley GT Coupe valued at $80,000.
Duval called Thomas “obviously a very intelligent, motivated man, and he obviously has a strong gambling addiction. Nonetheless, the public trust was violated, and that’s something this court has to be very sensitive to.”
In pleading for leniency, Meche pointed to a three-page autobiography Thomas filed with the court, in which he describes a childhood of poverty in Monticello, Mississippi, one of four children from four men, his own father in prison since Thomas was a baby.
With no running water, “We used to go to the pool hall next door to get water and bathe in a foot tub,” Thomas wrote.
He went on to play basketball at Mississippi State University before blowing out his knee, transferring to Southern University and then playing professionally in Helsinki, Finland, and later in England.
He returned to Mississippi to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting, first working for two accounting firms with Traffic Court contracts. Evidence showed that Thomas double-billed Traffic Court for work he did while at those firms, then hung out his own shingle and won the court’s accounting contract in 2008, starting at about $80,000 a year.
Thomas blew past that figure within a few months, never seeing a stop sign from the court. He was fired in late 2011, around the time New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office uncovered the bloated payments.
Thomas’ wife sat in the courtroom gallery as Thomas apologized to her and to “the court, the government, the citizens of New Orleans.”
“It seems I was hired to perform a service, and the service wasn’t performed satisfactorily,” he added. “I would like to apologize to my mother. She spent countless hours working countless jobs to keep me from being in this position.”
Duval agreed to recommend a federal prison where addiction treatment is available.
“I think the judge was fair,” Thomas said outside of the courtroom.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.