The trial of Iberia Parish Clerk of Court Michael Thibodeaux began in earnest Wednesday with attorneys on both sides outlining their cases in opening arguments before the prosecution began presenting its witnesses.
The morning session was focused primarily on the seating of four alternate jurors for the trial. Assistant District Attorney Alister Charrier presented the prosecution’s opening arguments.
“Public trust in our public officials is what we expect, what we should hope for in our elected officials,” Charrier said. “That is not what you are going to get in this case.”
The bulk of the prosecution’s case focuses on a process known as “suit clean-up,” in which monies kept in a fiduciary account for holding advance fees paid for pending legal cases were evaluated twice a month. If it was found that a case had been dormant for more than five years, any remaining funds were transferred to the clerk of court’s salary fund, which is the main operating fund for the office.
According to the state Legislative Auditor’s Office, that amounted to more than 2,900 accounts being transferred, for a total of more than $214,000, between 2013 and 2016, the three-year period at the heart of the LLA’s investigative audit.
The prosecution said that the ledger entries for the transfers indicated it was for copies, which were never actually made.
“You cannot transfer the money to another account unless it is for work that was done,” Charrier said. “In these cases, no copies were ever made.”
According to Charrier, the office also cut checks refunding those monies to the parties which had put them on deposit. If those checks were not cashed within a year’s time, then the Clerk of Court’s office would cut a second check with the same check number to move the funds to the Clerk’s reserve fund. During the investigative audit period, that amounted to 334 checks for $47,610 being moved to the salary fund account.
Under state law, those monies should have been forwarded to the LouisianaTreasury’s unclaimed property division.
Charrier said the issues came to light when Ryan Huval, the former chief deputy clerk of court, first contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2013. The FBI told him it was a state matter, not a federal one. Huval then approached the legislative auditor’s office, which launched an investigation.
The prosecution also claimed in opening that Thibodeaux kept a “box of cash” in the office that was used as an unaccountable petty cash fund, paid for a Sam’s account for one of the office’s workers with office funds and used credit card points to pay for a hotel stay in Austin.
McLindon, in the defense’s opening, said that many of the issues the prosecution raised were not unique to Thibodeaux’s office and had been practiced in other parishes for years.
Using a series of plastic cups to represent the various bank accounts and dried red beans to simulate fees, McLindon explained to jurors how the funds were moved from the advance fee account to the salary and reserve accounts.
He put a fourth cup on the counter.
“This represents Michael Thibodeaux’s personal checking account,” McLindon said. “You know how much went in there? Not one penny went in that account.”
Lead prosecutor Craig Colwart objected, saying the state planned to introduce evidence that Thibodeaux did profit from the machinations.
McLindon also attacked some of the prosecution’s other assertions. He claimed the “box of cash” was an office petty cash fund and that the other minor issues raised were attempts to “pile on.”
“They are throwing up everything they can,” McLindon said. “A Sam’s card, credit card reward points. This is a case about justice and fairness.”
Two witnesses were called Wednesday afternoon. Assistant Legislative Auditor Roger Harris, who serves as the director of investigative audits, told jurors about the process the legislative auditor uses in determining which cases it investigates. He said that Huval had made the initial complaints and provided documents that led to the initial investigation.
Although he was not in court, Huval was a constant figure in the testimony. Thibodeaux fired Huval before he reached out to the LLA, but after he had spoken with the FBI. Defense attorney John McLindon showed a list of “suit clean-up” transfers, many of them which Huval initiated. He also pointed to the LLA report, which said “management,” including Huval, was responsible for the issues.
Colwart fired off a stinging rebuttal in his follow up questioning, making the point that Thibodeaux, as the clerk of court, was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the office’s operation.
One of the documents Huval provided to the LLA — a list of all the recipients of checks that went uncashed — became the center of discussion when investigator Kunta Osberry testified. Under questioning from Colwart, Harris said Thibodeaux claimed not to have such a list. When McLindon questioned Osberry, Osberry said Huval had run the report himself and had never shown it to Thibodeaux.
McLindon also asked Osberry about his interviews with other clerks of court in the 16th Judicial District. He said that in St. Martin Parish, Clerk of Court Becky Patin said they would move funds to their operating funds from the advance fees account, justifying it as “administrative” fees.
“Is there any legal authority for this?” McLindon asked.
“No,” Osberry replied.
Osberry also said that as of 2016 Patin was not sending any of the St. Martin Parish Clerk of Court’s unclaimed fees to the state treasury, instead keeping them in the office’s operating account.
“Did you open an investigation into the St. Martin Parish Clerk of Court’s office?” McLindon asked.
“No, we didn’t,” Osberry answered.
Sixteenth Judicial District Judge Lewis Pitman said the trial will continue through the weekend, taking only Sunday off, and through Memorial Day until it is complete.
Fourteen counts were read in court, including two counts of theft over $25,000, one count of theft between $5,000 and $25,000, two counts of filing or maintaining false public records, and seven counts of malfeasance in office in addition to the single racketeering and perjury counts.
The trial will reconvene at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Iberia Parish Courthouse.