Accountant Vandale Thomas claimed on the witness stand Thursday that he earned most of the $1.3 million he billed to New Orleans Traffic Court over three years under an “oral contract” with a judge who is now dead.
In 2008, he said, city-run systems for Internet and phone payments weren’t connected to the court, leaving hundreds of drivers facing possible arrest for traffic tickets they had already paid. Dennis Dannel, the court’s chief judge before his death in 2011, wanted action fast, Thomas told a federal jury.
“There didn’t need to be people just getting arrested, and I needed to get the system fixed,” Thomas testified. “He said, ‘I need for you to get both of them done and do it quickly, and don’t worry about the other judges. I’ll handle them.’ ”
Asked why he didn’t get the arrangement put in writing later, Thomas said, “I didn’t want to go around anyone’s back. That wouldn’t have been a good move for me.”
But over nearly two hours on the witness stand, Thomas, 41, of Prairieville, couldn’t explain why his hourly rate for that work varied from $75 an hour to as much as $144 an hour. Federal prosecutors calculated those figures based on invoices Thomas submitted for what he described as add-on work that went far beyond a series of written agreements capping his pay to oversee the court’s books.
“I don’t know if there was a fee rate ever established, but I typically tried to bill at $75 an hour,” Thomas said, not denying the higher rates.
All told, he bilked the court and the city out of at least $684,000, prosecutors said in closing arguments. The true figure, they said, was likely closer to $860,000 in overbillings they said Thomas slid past the judges by keeping the dollar figures for individual checks relatively low.
Thomas was the last witness in a four-day trial in which he faces 11 counts of theft, money laundering and structuring transactions so as to evade federal reporting.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said the jury would begin deliberating Friday morning over allegations that first emerged in 2011, when New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office reported on an audit of the Traffic Court’s books.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Klebba pointed to 18 separate occasions from late 2008 to late 2011 when Thomas sought the signatures of two different judges for different checks on the same day for no apparent reason other than to avoid red flags from the judges or the federal government.
Thomas got the job for his own firm, Thomas & Thomas, after the firm he worked for, Pailet, Meunier and LeBlanc, was fired by the court for excessive billing, along with another firm, Nash Accounting and Tax Services. Nash had done the court’s accounting work, while Pailet was tasked with auditing the books. Only later was it learned that Thomas also had been working for Nash on the Traffic Court work.
“This is a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. The defendant came into the Traffic Court wearing a white hat. He had their trust. He had everyone’s trust, and in the end (he) violated that trust and robbed the city blind,” Klebba said. “Just because you’re a smart man does not mean you’re not guilty. Luck runs out.”
Adding together the hours for which he billed the court, separate hours he logged for Pailet and still more documented hours he spent in casinos, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Payne said Thomas would have had to “bend the laws of time and space unless he’s defrauding the court.”
Thomas is accused of laundering some of the money at casinos, where he admittedly “gambled excessively,” to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses while he worked for the court.
Prosecutors say he also plunked down more than $11,000 in ill-gotten gains in 2010 for a Bentley GT Coupe. Thomas testified that he bought the luxury car through a dealership recommended by his college roommate, former NBA center Erick Dampier.
Thomas described a meager upbringing in rural Monticello, Mississippi, where he would graduate from high school with honors and become a highly recruited basketball standout.
“I grew up in a very rural town, in a very poor family in the housing projects of Monticello and other housing that didn’t have water at times,” he said. “We would have to go to the pool hall next door to get water.”
He’d go on to a basketball career that led him from Mississippi State to Southern University and then a professional league in Europe. Knee problems cut short his hoop dreams, so he pursued a master’s degree in accounting and began working for Pailet in 2002. That’s how Thomas, who is not a certified public accountant, landed in Traffic Court, helping to sort out the court’s flooded records after Hurricane Katrina.
Prosecutors argued that Thomas knew all too well how to evade the system he helped create. Klebba also challenged Thomas over nearly $100,000 in tax write-offs he took in 2009 for expenses that included $4,100 in unallowed “uniform costs” for dress suits. Thomas, who was not charged with any federal tax crime, said he didn’t have the documentation.
His attorney, Paul Brown, painted Thomas as a man who made mistakes but who never intentionally embezzled from the court.
“If he was that smart, he surely could have covered his tracks better than this — because nothing’s hidden. It’s all out in the open,” Brown argued.
He also claimed that the theft charges against Thomas were clearly bogus because each of the 173 checks that Thomas cashed — and in many cases cut — were signed by now-deceased Judicial Administrator Louis Ivon and one of the court’s judges or, in some cases, by two judges.
“How could they say it was done without authority?” Brown asked the jury.
On Wednesday, Chief Administrative Judge Robert Jones III and Judge Mark Shea testified they had no clue as they signed checks that Thomas had blown past annual contract limits that started in 2008 at $75,000 and ultimately grew to $96,000. Some of the added work ultimately was approved by the city for Thomas, for up to $150,000, but by then, he’d far eclipsed that total, records show.
Thomas claimed he eventually told Jones of his oral agreement with Dannel, although Jones, who later made Thomas his campaign treasurer, testified that he wasn’t given the full picture.
Thomas has argued that he put others to work for him and that the government was counting hours that he never worked for Pailet to inflate his purported workload.
Brown noted that Thomas had found about $500,000 in a missing Traffic Court account and also saved the city a potential legal headache with the extra work.
“He was the one for having at least 500 improper warrants recalled, preventing citizens from possibly being arrested. That’s why he got the big bucks,” Brown argued.
“The only person who truly knows whether he had that (criminal) intent or not was Mr. Thomas. So, do you believe him?”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.