Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Judge Robert Jones, the chief judge of traffic court, considers independent accounting contractor Vandale Thomas a personal friend. Jones says Thomas plays on his softball team and, in a more official capacity, serves as the chief judge's campaign treasurer.
But those aren't the facts about Vandale Thomas that caught the eye of the New Orleans inspector general.
"They didn't oversee this accounting contractor or require supporting documentation for the bills he submitted. This is about $660,000. And the invoices are for huge blocks of hours without any description whatsoever,” said Ed Quatrevaux, the New Orleans inspector general.
These checks and invoices are just a partial record of the accounting work Thomas did for traffic court since 2010. The records add up to $561,000 in 2010 alone. Another $100,000 that was paid to Thomas that year appears to be unaccounted for in the records.
"There's just aggregations of hours. Forty-five hours for this, 45 hours for that. And that's it. On that basis, we paid, the courts paid $661,000 to this guy. We'll be talking to people to try to make sure where the money went and what it was for,” Quatrevaux said.
In other words, the inspector general's report on the court may be complete, but his investigation of Thomas is just beginning.
Through a public records request, Channel 4 obtained the court's records of Thomas’ work, and here's what we found.
Again, the amount paid to Vandale Thomas in 2010 came to more than $560,000. That breaks down to $46,000 a month.
So at Thomas' rate of $80 an hour, that would mean he and his company were logging almost 20 hours a day for 30 days each month for 365 days, the entire year.
In a response to the inspector general report, the Traffic Court judges issued this formal statement:
"Excluding Administrative Judge Dennis Dannel, the judges of Traffic Court were unaware that Thomas was performing the extra work for the city and the court… Our lack of knowledge is undisputed."
Dannel, the chief judge when Thomas was hired, died in January.
Judge Jones said he became aware of amount of the payments to Thomas only after he succeeded Dannel as chief judge in February. He refused to go on camera, but did answer some of our questions in an interview.
He said that when he found out what Thomas had been paid, he was shocked. He said he immediately alerted the other traffic court judges. He said he then called in Thomas and told him "unless you have an army of accountants working for you around the clock, this is humanly impossible."
Jones went on to say he supports an investigation of Thomas, but doesn't think it will show any criminal wrongdoing. And while Jones said he suspended most of Thomas's work for the court, he continues to get paid by the court.
Here's what Quatrevaux had to say about that arrangement:
"It's troubling. It's problematic,” he said. “And it shows a lack of action and leadership in my opinion."
We went to court several times, but could not find Thomas. We did talk to court employees, however, and they said they have never seen the accounting contractor with any staff or assistants.
We also came to the address that Vandale Thomas lists on his invoices and where he collects his paychecks from the city. And what we found was a Budget Mail Center.
Thomas finally got a message to us late Thursday.
Through a court official, Thomas relayed a statement that he was declining all interview requests on the advice of his attorney.
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