Traffic court clerk gets prison time for pocketing fines

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wwltv.com

Posted on September 13, 2012 at 5:47 PM

Updated Thursday, Sep 13 at 6:27 PM

Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
Email: mperlstein@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mperlstein

NEW ORLEANS -- The former chief deputy of New Orleans Traffic Court was sentenced Thursday to seven months in prison for stealing money from unsuspecting traffic violators, a scam we detailed in an earlier 4 Investigates report.

James Singleton, 45, also was ordered by U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon to serve 200 hours of community service as part of his sentence for felony theft of an organization receiving federal funds.

Singleton admitted taking $9,760 from at least six victims, but never clearing their violations in the court’s computer system.

Prosecutors Thursday initiated forfeiture proceedings for the money to pay restitution to Singleton’s victims.

Singleton faced a maximum of 10 years in prison, but received punishment on the low end of the sentencing guidelines because of his guilty plea and cooperation with authorities. He admitted his wrongdoing and began cooperating shortly after he was arrested on April 20.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said that through his crimes, Singleton defrauded both the traffic violators who came to him with tickets as well as the court and taxpayers who support the court.

“Once again, our policy of zero tolerance for corruption has revealed abuses by a public official who preyed on citizens to enrich himself unjustly,” Letten said.

Singleton was in charge of giving “reinstatement letters” to traffic violators who paid off their tickets to regain their suspended licenses and driving privileges. But officials became suspicious when some of those violators returned to court after being re-arrested for the same unpaid violations.

Rochelle Evans was a victim. Evans had racked up multiple tickets, so she paid them off with her income tax refund. She thought the matter was over until she got pulled over again and arrested.

"I got pulled over by the police officer and he told me that my driver's license was suspended, and I went to telling him, that can't be so, because it was handled already and it wasn't," Evans said.

When Evans went back to court, she got the bad news: none of the tickets was marked as paid.

Noel Cassanova, chief clerk of traffic court, said he heard identical complaints from others. He reviewed the cases and found a common thread: reinstatement letters signed by Singleton.

"The letter says the tickets are satisfied, but the computer says they're open and pending," Cassanova said.

After several such complaints, Cassanova and the traffic court judges confronted Singleton. He initially denied stealing money, but in September 2010 handed in his resignation.

The court reported Singleton to the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office and the FBI. During the course of an 18-month investigation, more than a dozen additional alleged victims came forward, all with reinstatement letters signed by Singleton. Cassanova said victims have continued to trickle into his office over the past few months.

Channel 4 also began investigating and found several more people who said they were victimized. One woman said she went to an ATM on several occasions to pay Singleton hundreds of dollars. Another alleged victim said Singleton came to her house to collect.

Singleton’s attorney Pat Fanning could not be reached for comment about his client, who is not related to the former New Orleans city councilman of the same name.

 

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