Conviction of New Orleans traffic court accountant who overbilled will stand

By Sam Knef | Mar 3, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — The conviction and three-year sentence of an accountant found guilty of theft, money laundering and unlawful payment structuring while working as a contractor for the New Orleans Traffic Court will stand, a court has ruled.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 30 upheld the guilty verdict of former Mississippi State basketball shooting guard Vandale Thomas, who was found to have taken between $600,000 and $800,000 for billed services that he didn't provide. 

At a five-day trial in the Eastern District of Louisiana in October 2014, prosecutors said that Thomas overbilled the traffic court for his services, sometimes billing for more than 24 hours of work in a single day.

The crimes took place between 2008 and 2011, court records state.

Prosecutors also said Thomas would bill at a rate in excess of his contracted hourly rate and backdate transactions in an attempt to conceal his activities, the 5th Circuit order states.

In addition, Thomas processed his own invoices and issued checks to himself after obtaining the signature of either the traffic court's judicial administrator or one of the traffic court judges.

He was convicted of three counts of theft from a program receiving federal funds, three counts of money laundering and five counts of illegal payment structuring.

In his indictment, prosecutors said that his initial contract with the city in 2008 provided that he would be paid $75 per hour and his annual pay would not exceed $75,000. A second agreement in 2009 authorized him to bill the traffic court an additional $90,000. A third agreement in January 2010 allowed him to bill an additional $84,000.

And in April 2010, the traffic court authorized an additional $150,000.

A fourth agreement in November 2010 allowed him to bill an additional $96,000, and a fifth agreement in April 2011 allowed him to bill an additional $132,000. 

"Due to a lack of controls and oversight at Traffic Court, from on or about November 24, 2008, to on or about December 5, 2011, Thomas entered and reconciled all accounting entries for Traffic Court, back dated checks and generated payments for Thomas and his business, Thomas & Thomas," his indictment stated.

In that period of time, the city of New Orleans and the traffic court agreed to compensate him for "accounting services" not to exceed $627,000. Thomas submitted more than 170 invoices alleging he performed more than $1.3 million in accounting and financial services, which the city, through the traffic court, paid.

According to an article in the New Orleans Advocate, Thomas said on the stand at trial that he had 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." 

The article quoted a statement from Thomas's attorney, Paul Brown, following the conviction.

“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 stated, according to the Advocate.

“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," he said. "Anyone who knows Vandale realizes what a great young man he is.”

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Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Louisiana Supreme Court Mississippi State University Athletics U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

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