Thibodeaux convicted on all 14 counts

Michael Thibodeaux

Jurors in Iberia Parish Clerk of Court Michael Thibodeaux’s heard testimony Thursday from his former Chief Deputy Clerk Ryan Huval and Clerk Tracy Hebert, both of whom provided evidence to the Louisiana State Police in its investigation of Thibodeaux for mishandling of office funds during his two-decade tenure.

Thibodeaux is facing 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 one count each of racketeering and perjury.

Hebert served as the receptionist/clerk in the office adjoining Thibodeaux’s and recorded Thibodeaux surreptitiously as part of the State Police investigation. During tearful testimony, she said she was concerned about a box of cash, which contained money over the amount collected at the front desk for copies but was not noted in receipts, that had been in the office for decades, going back to previous Clerk of Court Pat Saunier.

Saunier pleaded no contest to a felony charge of theft over $500 in July 1998 and was sentenced to five years of supervised probation. As part of the plea agreement, Saunier repaid $89,196 to the clerk’s office a month later. Hebert said it was Thibodeaux who turned in Saunier in 1997.

When LSP investigators approached Hebert about recording Thibodeaux, she came up with the idea of feigning a breast cancer scare to get him to open up about the cash.

The audio recording, which was played for jurors in court, was muddy, but one could hear Hebert tearfully playing up her bogus mammogram result while Thibodeaux showed concern, asking her if she needed a ride to get to her appointment. When she brought up her worries about Thibodeaux, the ongoing investigation and the potential trouble he faced over the cash box, he said “Don’t worry about that. It will disappear.”

He also said he had spoken with 16th Judicial District Attorney Bo Duhé and that he had been told there were no looming dangers.

“I will be fine,” Thibodeaux reassured her.

Hebert also relayed her story of how Thibodeaux had told her not to share any information about the cash overage box with Chief Deputy Clerk David Ditch. She said when she heard Ditch and another clerk, Stephanie Derouen, speaking in 2017 about the process used to move funds from the advance fee account to the operating account, known as “suit clean-up,” Ditch was shocked.

“He said, ‘Man, I hope there is nothing else I don’t know about,’” Hebert said. “I told him. I was scared to death. He said, ‘We have to tell Mr. Thibodeaux that you told me about this.’”

Hebert was near tears several times as she told of how the investigation had destroyed her relationship with Thibodeaux.

“We were like brother and sister,” she said. “There was nothing we did not know about each other.”

Hebert also said that she had Thibodeaux remove the box from her care. It was placed in a closet in Thibodeaux’s office, but Hebert said she would sneak in there and count the money to make sure it was all still there.

“It was supposed to be $800, but there was only $200,” she said. “It would fluctuate.”

She also said she had changed roles in the office since the investigation, and her role in it, became known. She now works in the civil division of the office.

Lead prosecutor Craig Colwart asked why she accepted the move.

“I lost trust,” she said. “I learned Mr. Thibodeaux had told the State Police that I had taken money from the cash box. I could not work in that office any more after that.”

Huval, who served as chief deputy clerk from 2008 until he was terminated in November 2015, provided documents to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor in April 2016 that began the investigation of the Clerk of Court office’s financial transactions. But that was not the first time he had reported his suspicions about the office. Huval said he met with two New Orleans attorneys in 2013 after discovering Louisiana Revised Statute 13:842, which outlined the proper method for handling of advance fees in the clerk’s office. He subsequently met with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Lafayette to outline his concerns.

“In 2013, when I went to New Orleans, I did what I was supposed to do,” Huval said.

At that time the U.S. Attorney in Lafayette informed Huval because the issues did not involve federal funds it was not a case for the FBI.

Members of the gallery were murmuring during Huval’s testimony, leading 16th Judicial District Judge Lewis Pitman to admonish spectators when the jury was out of the courtroom to be quiet during testimony.

The bulk of the prosecution’s case focuses on the suit clean-up process, 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.

Even as he collected evidence and shopped for an agency to investigate the office, Huval did not inform Thibodeaux of his concerns, nor of the statute he had found which showed the office’s suit clean-up process was illegal.

“I did not tell Mike Thibodeaux, because he had already threatened to fire me in 2011,” Huval said.

Huval said the argument with Thibodeaux occurred shortly after the close of election qualification for the 2011 clerk’s race.

‘He called me into his office and fussed at me,” Huval said. “He said nothing was going right in the office and said I told his receptionist that he was going to jail.”

Huval said Thibodeaux made it clear that his job was on the line.

“He said if there were any more unrest or issues between he and I, one of us would be gone,” Huval said. “And it wouldn’t be him.”

He said he was distrustful of the Clerk of Court’s attorney, its bookkeeper and its auditor because of their ties to Thibodeaux. He also said he was concerned when he thought Thibodeaux, Hebert and Ditch were “huddling” to conspire against him.

“I had feedback they were plotting just to ‘show me,’” Huval said.

Though he did not give anyone in the office a warning of his discoveries, he did say he had informally asked “several” other clerks of court about how their offices handled suit clean-up and unclaimed advance fees.

“I felt that Mike Thibodeaux was under the false impression that everyone does it this way,” Huval said.

The office also cut checks refunding monies to the parties which had put them on deposit in the first place. Many of those, however, went uncashed. On April 18, 2012, the Clerk of Court’s office cut 344 checks with the same check numbers as refund checks that had not been processed to move $47,610 to the salary fund.

Under state law, those monies should have been forwarded to the Louisiana Treasury’s unclaimed property division.

Huval approached the LLA in 2016 after he had been fired. At that point he provided records he had been saving for years, including a list from May 2012 of the 344 checks he said had been cut, along with the names of the original parties to whom the money was owed.

On cross-examination, defense attorney John McLindon poked at some issues in Huval’s testimony, including a claim he made that he had not performed any of the suit clean-up activities prior to 2009. McLindon produced a sheaf of transfers showing Huval had in fact been moving funds from the advance account since at least 2005.

McLindon put forth the idea that Huval wanted to run for Thibodeaux’s office and became frustrated when Thibodeaux did not retire after 2011, and more so after the 2015 election.

“Did you say, ‘When is enough enough?’” McLindon asked.

“After qualifying in 2015, he told me he had no clue how to run the office,” Huval said. “He keeps running, in 2020, 2024. You are telling me you have no clue, but keep running.”

“Did that put a crimp in your plans?” McLindon asked.

“It didn’t put a crimp in anything,” Huval retorted. “The crimp was that the office was in disarray and he can’t fix it. He just stayed to collect the money.”

“You were the chief deputy for nine years, and the office was in disarray?” McLindon asked. “You had two things in your pocket — that statute and that list of 334 checks. But you had no plan to use them.”

“No sir,” Huval replied.

“Not until after you were fired,” McLindon said.

The testimony began Thursday morning at 9 a.m. with Ryan Stamper, an investigator with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office, retracing much of the territory his boss, Assistant Legislative Auditor Roger Harris, and partner, investigator Kunta Osberry, touched on in Wednesday’s session. The jurors also heard from State Trooper Darren Juneau, who had suggested Hebert record Thibodeaux.

Hebert is scheduled to be on the witness stand this morning at 11 a.m. to face cross-examination from McLindon.

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