Former Traffic Court accountant’s high-rolling ways described at trial _lowres

Vandale Thomas

Vandale Thomas never denied making good money from his work as chief financial officer for New Orleans Traffic Court.

The former Mississippi State basketball player took in more than $1.3 million over three years, all while working under contracts with the court and the city that would have capped his pay at half that much.

Prosecutors say he billed for hours that at times seemed to leave him little or no time for sleep, let alone activities such as serving as campaign treasurer for Traffic Court Chief Judge Robert Jones III, playing on a softball team with Jones or pursuing high-stakes gambling sprees at Harrah’s Canal Street casino.

What Thomas denies, however, is that he did any accounting work that wasn’t fully endorsed by the court, on more than 170 checks that the judges signed for him.

And for all the hours he billed the court, Thomas maintains he was worth every penny, revamping a shoddy payment system for traffic fines that threatened to prompt the false arrests of law-abiding citizens.

Almost three years after New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office detailed some of Thomas’ rampant billings in a scathing report, the 41-year-old accountant went on trial Monday in federal court, accused of 11 counts of theft and money laundering.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marquest Meeks portrayed Thomas as a shark who exploited the trust of the four Traffic Court judges to siphon off hundreds of thousands of dollars illegally by claiming an impossible work schedule.

Thomas “robbed the city blind,” Meeks said in his opening statement.

Thomas’ billings for Traffic Court, along with other timesheets and gambler tracking records from Harrah’s, show that in some months he left himself about two hours a day for sleeping, eating, commuting and spending time with his family in Prairieville, the prosecutor said.

Thomas “billed for more hours than were humanly possible,” Meeks told the jury of 10 men and two women. “He lied, he covered his tracks, but he never stopped stealing. ... The defendant is not being prosecuted here because he worked too hard.”

At the heart of the case are questions that have lingered since 2011, when Quatrevaux issued his report and when Jones, the chief judge, lamented a lack of oversight at the court he led. Jones claimed he was duped by the relatively low figures on individual invoices that Thomas submitted.

Among those questions: Who was to blame for the exorbitant payouts to Thomas? And how did the court’s four judges let Thomas tap its coffers seemingly at will, especially after having fired its previous accountants over excessive billings?

It was Thomas, in fact, who had done the accounting for Traffic Court under one of those firms, Nash Accounting and Tax Services. At the same time, he led the auditing of those books under another firm, Pailet, Meunier and LeBlanc LLP.

“At that time, the judges had no idea that they were hiring a fox to guard that henhouse,” Meeks said.

Thomas then took over the court’s books directly, as Thomas and Thomas Accounting Services. The name was redundant, he later acknowledged. It was a one-man firm.

Jones, who signed checks totaling more than half of the money paid to Thomas, later called the payments “obscene” and placed some of the blame for the lapse in oversight on his predecessor, Judge Dennis Dannel, who died in 2011.

Judge Mark Shea also signed dozens of checks to Thomas. According to a recent report by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office, Shea said 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.”

Thomas has denied paying any kickbacks to the judges, and none of the judges has been charged with a crime.

Along with the purchase of more than $20,000 in casino chips during two trips to Harrah’s in September 2010, federal prosecutors allege that Thomas plunked down $11,680 for a down payment on a 2005 Bentley GT Coupe worth some $80,000. They posted a photo of the vehicle on a screen in front of the jury Monday.

“The facts are going to show that he did make a lot of money — that’s not in doubt — and that he bought some very nice things for himself with that money,” Thomas’ defense attorney, Paul Brown, told the jury. “But neither of those things are illegal.”

Brown noted that each of the checks Thomas received were signed twice — by at least one judge and usually also by the court’s former judicial administrator, Louis Ivon, who died in late 2012 at age 78.

“He was doing the work. He was presenting the checks, and they were paying him. There was nothing secret or under the radar or that he was hiding,” Brown said. “Some of the judges now want to stick their heads in the sand and say, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize we were signing these checks and giving him too much money.’ That’s absurd.

“If they feel like they overpaid him, that’s not his problem.”

Brown did not address the contracts that capped the dollar amounts for the work Thomas did.

Giving Thomas the benefit of the doubt, those contracts added up to a maximum allowable figure of $627,000, prosecutors said. Brent McDougall, an auditor with Purpera’s office, testified that a more accurate figure was $552,000, more than $700,000 shy of what Thomas was paid. There were 173 checks in all over three years beginning in late 2008, McDougall testified.

“There were multiple instances where Mr. Thomas would receive several checks that were dated the same date,” McDougall said.

Prosecutors suggest that Thomas deliberately kept the amounts below the $10,000 threshold that would have triggered a bank reporting of the transaction.

McDougall also testified that Thomas billed for more than 24 hours a day of work in eight separate months and that he double-billed the court for more than $600,000 while working for two firms from 2006 to 2008.

Prosecutors suggested that the hefty payouts flew under the city’s radar because Traffic Court was raking in millions of dollars for the city each year. Another factor: Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the city kept the Traffic Court’s books. Afterward, the court took control of its own accounting under 2004 legislation that created a Judicial Expense Fund for the court.

Brown argued that the city should thank Thomas for managing the court’s books so well.

“Not only are we going to show the work was done but that it was performed in an excellent fashion,” Brown said. “He restructured how the Traffic Court worked. It had been a mess before he got there. He is one of the good guys.”

Among the judges who signed Thomas’ contracts, Jones and Shea are the only two who remain on the bench. They are expected to testify in the trial, which continues Tuesday.

Each of the counts carries a maximum sentence of five or 10 years in prison.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.