In his closing argument Tuesday, attorney John McLindon told jurors that the charges against his client, Iberia Parish Clerk of Court Michael Thibodeaux, were politically motivated, the end result of a scheme from a former employee who wanted to take Thibodeaux’s job at any cost.
He said that Thibodeaux was the victim of a system of handling the finances of the clerk’s office that had been in place for half a century, with some aspects of that obsolete management present in other clerks’ offices across the state.
But at the end of the day, the eight women and four men on the jury disagreed, voting to convict Thibodeaux on all 14 counts after only two and a half hours of deliberation Tuesday evening.
“Obviously we are devastated,” McLindon said after the verdict was read. “We have reserved a lot of good issues for appeal. But now, we are just crushed.”
Sixteenth Judicial Court District Attorney Bo Duhé said he was very happy with the work prosecutors Alister Charrier and Craig Colwart performed presenting the state’s case.
“I want to applaud them for their professionalism and commitment to ensure that the truth of these allegations came to light,” Duhé said.
Thibodeaux sat still throughout the verdict, not reacting as each new guilty count was read. Behind him, family and friends sat with his wife, Elizabeth, who also remained stoic until after the judge dismissed the court. As Thibodeaux tried to console his wife and granddaughter, other friends crowded around to offer their support.
“It’s over,” he repeated as he held his family. “It’s fine.”
Thibodeaux was convicted on one count of racketeering, 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, seven counts of malfeasance in office and one count of perjury.
Chief Deputy Clerk David Ditch will assume the role of acting Clerk of Court now that Thibodeaux has been convicted.
The investigation of Thibodeaux’ office began after former Chief Deputy Clerk Ryan Huval, who is mounting a campaign for Clerk of Court, was fired in November 2015. Huval then provided documents he had saved for years, at least since June 2012, to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.
Those documents showed that Thibodeaux had created 334 checks to replace refund checks to litigants that had gone unnegotiated. He used those checks to transfer more than $47,000 from the advance fee fund, which is a fiduciary account for funds litigants pay up front when filing lawsuits, to the clerk’s salary fund, which is the operating fund for the office.
That action violates several state statutes, not the least of which is the legislation which governs the clerk of court office operation. That action resulted in one of the two theft over $25,000 convictions as well as one count of malfeasance and one count of filing or maintaining false public records.
The other major component of the state’s case against Thibodeaux involved the “suit clean up” process at use in the clerk’s office. That process involved charging off the amount remaining in dormant accounts, ones which had sat idle for more than five years, noting false claims of certified or Xerox copies made against the accounts to justify moving the money from the advance fee account to the office’s salary fund.
That process netted Thibodeaux’ office $218,000 in the three years the LLA studied in its investigative audit. It also resulted in a second conviction on a charge of theft over $25,000, another malfeasance conviction and a second conviction for filing or maintaining false public records.
He also was convicted of another count of malfeasance for failing to forward the funds from the dormant suit funds to the Louisiana State Treasury Unclaimed Property office as required under the statute governing the Clerk of Court office’ operation.
Thibodeaux also paid for part of a vacation using credit card points earned from government American Express cards. He used two $200 gift cards secured with credit card points to pay for hotel rooms while he and his wife were traveling in Austin, Texas, with friends, then tried to justify the expense as a business cost because he visited the Texas state capitol while in Austin. That excursion formed the basis for another malfeasance conviction.
Several other issues were discovered after Duhé forwarded the LLA report to the Louisiana State Police. The LSP investigation turned up a “box of cash,” which was a sort of slush fund made up of overages from the office’s front desk register after the till was reconciled each day. Although there was no way to track how much money passed through the box over the years, a ledger that Deputy Clerk Tracy Hebert kept showed that more than $5,200 passed through the box between 2002 and 2013.
That issue resulted in another malfeasance conviction for Thibodeaux as well as a conviction on a charge of theft between $5,000 and $25,000.
Thibodeaux had also secured a Sam’s Club membership for one of his staff and paid for it for at least four years using money from the clerk’s office. That resulted in another malfeasance conviction.
Because of the contradicting stories that were told throughout the investigative audit, LSP investigation and the subsequent grand jury investigation, Thibodeaux was also convicted of a charge of perjury and another count of malfeasance in office stemming from his perjury before the grand jury.
The first charge in the original indictment, and the first guilty verdict read Tuesday evening, was racketeering, which encompasses all of the other 13 charges. In order to convict on a racketeering charge, the jury needed to find that a pattern of corrupt activity exists, and that it is repeated.
The racketeering conviction brings with it a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison. Each of the two theft over $25,000 counts carries a sentence of up to 20 years, while the lesser charge of theft between $5,000 and $25,000 carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. Each of the public records and malfeasance counts carries a sentence of up to five years, as does the perjury conviction.
Duhé also passed on his appreciation to the jury, 16th Judicial District Court Judge Lewis Pitman and his staff for their tireless work, to the Legislative Auditors and the Louisiana State Police for their thorough and professional investigation.
Thibodeaux will have to secure a $200,000 conviction bond and forfeit his passport to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office as he awaits sentencing, which is set for June 21 at 9 a.m.