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

Vandale Thomas

Accountant Vandale Thomas, who managed to bill $1.3 million to New Orleans Traffic Court over three years under written contracts capped at less than half that amount, was convicted Friday on all 11 counts he faced in connection with an alleged embezzlement and money-laundering scheme in which he admittedly blew much of the proceeds at roulette and blackjack tables.

A federal jury deliberated for about four hours before convicting Thomas, 41, a former Mississippi State basketball shooting guard who lives in Prairieville, on counts of theft, money laundering and structuring transactions to skirt federal reporting rules.

Federal prosecutors alleged during a weeklong trial that Thomas stole more than $680,000, and possibly more than $800,000, from the court and the city by inflating invoices and cutting checks that he claimed in court were the result of a spoken, add-on contract with a now-deceased judge. Thomas couldn’t possibly have worked as many hours as he claimed as the court’s chief financial officer from 2008 to 2011, prosecutors alleged.

On the witness stand Thursday, Thomas admitted to a gambling habit that saw him drop hundreds of thousands of dollars and achieve elite high-roller status at casinos in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Las Vegas and other cities as he raked in money from the court and the city.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brian Klebba, Matthew Payne and Marquest Meeks laid out a case that Thomas duped the Traffic Court judges by cutting many of the checks himself and taking them around piecemeal to the judges to avoid detection.

He then tried to cover it up, they said, by falsely claiming he had employees working for him, including a Harrah’s casino dealer, Montrelle Williams, who testified that she was Thomas’ girlfriend and worked for free. She said Thomas, who is married, later amended her tax return to cover his tracks after New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office began an audit of the Traffic Court books in mid-2011.

That audit led to a scathing report later that year that exposed some of Thomas’ bloated billings and recommended a merger of Traffic Court and Municipal Court.

A more recent report by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office expanded on the probe, laying more groundwork for the federal prosecution.

“Vandale Thomas defrauded the city of New Orleans out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He then blatantly flaunted his fraudulent conduct on gambling sprees and expensive cars,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite said in a statement Friday. “Today’s guilty verdict ensures that Thomas will be held accountable for his corrupt conduct.”

The charges included three counts of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, three counts of money laundering and five counts of structuring transactions to evade reporting requirements.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. set a Jan. 14 sentencing date. Thomas faces a maximum 10-year sentence or $250,000 fine for each of the first six counts and five years or a $250,000 fine for the five others.

His attorney, Paul Brown, thanked the prosecutors for their “kindness and cooperation through this entire ordeal” in a statement, but he said Thomas plans to appeal the verdicts, which he described as “completely wrong.”

“We feel as though the amount of money involved, the idea that the U.S. government must always be right in these types of matters, and the negative aspect of Vandale’s gambling all blinded the jury to the true facts of the case — that Vandale Thomas was and is innocent of all of these charges,” Brown said in the statement late Friday.

“What the jury’s verdict did was to convict a fine, honest and honorable young man who committed no crimes and who did nothing but give his best efforts to helping the citizens of New Orleans and trying to make this great city into the best place it could possibly become. Anyone who knows Vandale realizes what a great young man he is.”

During his testimony, Thomas claimed that much of the work he did for the court was to fix disjointed phone and Internet payment systems that threatened to land hundreds of law-abiding citizens in jail because the systems did not reflect payments they had made for traffic tickets. Thomas testified that former Chief Judge Dennis Dannel, who died in 2011 after a long battle with cancer, had verbally approved the added work.

“He said, ‘I need you to get both of them done and do it quickly, and don’t worry about the other judges. I’ll handle them,’ ” Thomas testified.

Current Chief Judge Robert Jones III, who made Thomas his campaign treasurer, and Judge Mark Shea both testified that Dannel was a stickler for protecting public money and would have never cut an informal deal with Thomas.

The judges also claimed that when they signed his checks, they couldn’t have known that Thomas, who is not a certified public accountant, was billing wildly above his contract caps, which started at $75,000 a year in 2008.

Thomas labored to explain why the invoices he submitted added up to hourly rates ranging from $75 to $144, why documents seemed to show evidence of double-billing and why he would frequently submit separate checks to different judges on the same day.

Prosecutors argued that Thomas laundered some of the money in the purchase of Harrah’s casino chips and with an $11,680 down payment on a Bentley GT Coupe.

The exact amount he overbilled the court was debatable, depending on the interpretation of addenda to his written contracts with the court and approvals from the city for some of the work.

The billings to the city may have escaped detection because they were deducted from the millions of dollars that the city received from Traffic Court each year. The case pointed to a severe lack of controls over the court’s books — partly because Thomas was “the fox guarding the henhouse,” Klebba told the jury.

Thomas began his work for the court after injuries ended his basketball career. He got an accounting degree and took a job with the local accounting firm Pailet, Meunier and LeBlanc.

According to testimony, Traffic Court ultimately fired both Pailet and another firm, Nash Accounting and Tax Services, in 2008 because of excessive billings and hired Thomas to do the work. It turned out, though, that Thomas had been working for both firms, one for accounting and one for auditing the books he oversaw, in what prosecutors painted as a clear ethical breach.

All told, Thomas received 173 checks totaling more than $1.3 million before he was terminated following the Inspector General’s Office report. Jones signed the largest number of checks, followed by Shea, who testified that Thomas would often bring him checks to sign while he was preoccupied on the bench.

Co-signing many of the checks was then-Judicial Administrator Louis Ivon, a former police officer and district attorney’s investigator who died in late 2012 at the age of 78.

In a statement after the verdict, Quatrevaux said the conviction “shows what happens to those who steal from the city today.”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.