Feds indict former Traffic Court bookkeeper on corruption charges

A Prairieville man who for three years worked as the bookkeeper for New Orleans Traffic Court bilked the city of more than half a million dollars, using some of the money to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of casino chips and a Bentley coupe, federal officials alleged on Friday.

A federal grand jury in New Orleans indicted Vandale Thomas, 40, on 12 different counts, including theft and money laundering. The case is another black mark for the city’s Traffic Court, already facing questions about whether it wastes taxpayer dollars and whether the way it finances its operations is constitutional.

“This indictment represents another example of our region’s coordinated efforts to root out public corruption,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. said in a statement. “We will hold accountable anyone who allegedly defrauds our government.”

The Traffic Court judges hired Thomas and his accounting firm to keep tabs on their finances in 2008, initially capping what he could charge in a year at $75,000. Eventually, the court authorized total payments of as much as $627,000, according to the indictment.

Instead, Thomas allegedly ended up charging the court about $1.3 million, overbilling by more than $680,000 between 2009 and 2011 and using “numerous bank branches” to avoid tipping off the IRS.

Thomas has been under scrutiny for the eye-popping sums that he charged the court for some time. New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux started digging through his invoices in 2011, delivering a scathing report that recommended merging the city’s traffic and municipal courts to save money.

At the time, Traffic Court’s chief judge, Robert Jones, called the sums involved “obscene” and placed blame for the lapse in oversight on his predecessor, Judge Dennis Dannel, who died in 2011. However, it was Jones who signed most of the checks, hired Thomas as his campaign treasurer and even recruited him for a softball team.

Jones did not immediately return a phone call late Friday requesting comment on the indictment. Thomas’ attorney declined to comment.

In a written statement, Quatrevaux called the charges “another example of the close relationship between the Office of Inspector General and our federal partners,” adding, “The OIG will continue to pursue those who defraud the city of New Orleans.”

Over more than three years, Thomas filed 170 invoices with the court, quietly surging past the contractual limits placed on his compensation without anyone noticing, according to the indictment.

As part of the money-laundering accusations, the indictment lists two occasions, both in September 2010, on which Thomas allegedly bought more than $10,000 worth of chips at Harrah’s Casino, while also noting a $11,680 down payment that he allegedly made on an $80,000 Bentley GT coupe the next month.

In all three cases, the government charges, Thomas used money “having been derived from a specified unlawful activity, that is, theft concerning programs receiving federal funds.”

The indictment alleges that Thomas carefully managed the rest of the money he was taking from the court, always making relatively small deposits and withdrawals to avoid triggering an IRS rule that requires banks to report any transaction involving $10,000 or more.

It lists 17 different transactions at different Liberty Bank branches between January and November of 2010, all ranging from about $3,000 to $9,200 and never going above the $10,000 mark.

All of this could mean a long stay in prison for Thomas, if he is convicted.

In its announcement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office noted that the first three counts of the indictment, all for theft, carry a maximum sentence of 10 years each, as do counts four through six, for “monetary transactions in property derived from a specified unlawful activity.” Counts seven through 12, for trying to dodge the IRS, each carry a five-year maximum sentence.