NEW ORLEANS – When people go to court to settle their traffic tickets, the last thing they expect is to become victims of a scam, but one high-ranking New Orleans Traffic Court official is accused of doing just that.
Walk into the court on any given day and dozens of people are lined up to pay their tickets. Clerks collect the money, violations get dismissed and drivers leave with a clean slate.
"I gave them $2,000, because I had a whole list of tickets. I told them I didn't even know where they came from, but I wanted them handled, so I gave them the money for it," said Rochelle Evans.
She 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."
When Evans went back to court, she got the bad news: none of the tickets was paid.
Noel Cassanova, chief clerk of traffic court, had heard identical complaints from others. He reviewed the cases and found a common thread: reinstatement letters signed by James Singleton, the deputy clerk of traffic court.
"The letter says the tickets are satisfied, but the computer says they're open and pending," Cassanova said.
Ernest Roy was arrested several times because of his unpaid tickets. But Roy swore he paid more than $3,000 cash to Singleton.
"He was paying this particular person for some traffic tickets, but every time he got stopped, the tickets were never paid,” said Roy’s mother, Lorraine Franklin.
Franklin scraped together money to help her son with his tickets. Several times the money went to bail her son out of jail.
"I'm on a set income, and whenever I could help him, I'd help him,” she said, “but that would leave me with a bill not being paid to help him get out of jail because of the tickets."
After Roy's complaint, Cassanova and the traffic court judges confronted Singleton. He initially denied stealing money, but in September 2010 handed in his resignation.
"He said that he, in fact, generated this letter, and signed it,” Cassanova said. “He generated it for Mr. Roy, but he denied that he took any money to do so, which begs the question: Why did he give him a letter?"
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.
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.
In the course of our investigation, just last week, Singleton was quietly arrested by the FBI. In its affidavit, the FBI says Singleton admitted pocketing the money.
"I never thought that somebody in the court would actually be doing this, but they proved me wrong,” said Lorraine Franklin.
The criminal complaint accuses Singleton of taking more than $9,000 from at least six unsuspecting drivers, but there may be many more victims out there who don't even realize it.
“We've had people since that time, as late as a week ago, who are still coming forward," Cassanova said. “One guy signed the check, crying, saying, ‘I’ve never felt so stupid in all my life.’”
Singleton, who is not related to the former New Orleans councilman of the same name, was released on bond shortly after his arrest on April 20.
WWL-TV has not been able to contact him for comment.
"I want justice, but not just me, but for everybody who was victimized in this. Would he like for someone to do this to him or someone in his family, his mother, his daughter?" asked Rochelle Evans.
Anyone else who thinks they may have been a victim, can call the FBI at 504-816-3152.
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