The felony trial of Iberia Parish Clerk of Court Mike Thibodeaux has raised multiple issues about how clerks of court across the Teche Area, and the state as a whole, conduct business.
Much of the testimony during the week focused on the operation of Thibodeaux’s office, with several members of the staff involved in the movement of monies from the advance fee account — which holds funds on account that private individuals pay to be used for filing fees, copies, and other purposes during litigation — to the salary fund, which contains public funds for the operation of the clerk’s office.
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.
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.
The office also cut checks refunding monies to the parties who 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.
Lead prosecutor Craig Colwart also presented witnesses to discuss the office’s “box of cash,” which was used to hold overages from the daily receipts at the front desk for copies and other services. Under state statute, those funds should have been deposited in the office’s salary fund. Instead, for at least the last 25 years the funds have been kept in a box and used as a petty cash fund which held as much as $1,200 at one point.
On Friday morning, defense attorney John McLindon grilled Deputy Clerk Tracy Hebert over her handling of the box. It had been locked in a credenza behind her desk, where she placed cash overages from the office’s receipts each day after reconciling the till for that day. After the LLA audit, Hebert said she no longer wanted to have anything to do with the box, so she returned it to Thibodeaux, who put it in a closet in his office.
But Hebert admitted that she would “snoop” in Thibodeaux’s office and counted the cash in the drawer on several occasions after that.
McLindon also questioned Hebert about a video she recorded surreptitiously at the request of Louisiana State Police, in which she feigned a questionable spot on a mammogram to get Thibodeaux to talk about the cash box.
“You were able to fool someone close to you, to fake cry, to get him to talk,” he said.
“No sir,” Hebert responded. “That was not fake. I was scared. I knew he (Thibodeaux) had been recorded during the investigation of Mr. (Pat) Saunier (Thibodeaux’s predecessor) and I was afraid I would get caught.”
Under redirect from Colwart, Hebert was asked who she had told about the box. She said she told McLindon during a meeting with Chief Deputy Clerk David Ditch, and that McLindon reacted strongly.
“He said, ‘Oh God, he needs to resign,’” Hebert said.
On Saturday, Ditch was on the witness stand. McLindon asked him about that moment, to which Ditch remembered a slightly different expletive of “Oh s***,” but substantially the same quote.
McLindon then played Ditch’s LSP interview, which had been recorded right after the incident. Ditch did not tell police about McLindon’s reaction.
“So you hear this, and it sticks in your mind, but when the state police interview you, you don’t tell them that,” McLindon said, “but when you went to the grand jury, you remembered it. How is that?”
With several witnesses, McLindon has asked questions regarding the participation of First Assistant District Attorney Rob Vines in preparing witnesses for their grand jury testimony. He has also asked witnesses about the interaction between former Chief Deputy Clerk Ryan Huval and Vines on several occasions. It was Huval who approached the LLA in 2016 after he had been fired in November 2015. At that time 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.
McLindon also played an excerpt of Ditch’s LSP interview where he decried Huval’s turning in evidence against Thibodeaux.
“So he gets fired, then lo and behold, it’s wrong then?” Ditch asked in the video.
Saunier was Saturday’s first witness, testifying that the processes for moving funds in the Iberia Parish Clerk of Courts Office, which are at the core of many the charges against Thibodeaux, had been in place for almost half a century.
“I took office in 1974, and it was in place before that,” Saunier said.
Saunier was later convicted of stealing money from the office to feed his gambling habit. He pled guilty to theft of over $500 and received a suspended sentence. He also made restitution of more than $89,000.
The jury also heard Saturday from four clerks of court from other parishes about how their offices handle those operations. Although none of those clerks said their offices used the same procedure Thibodeaux’s office staff was using, there were some issues that came up which were very similar.
For example, clerks from Lafayette, St. Mary and Vermilion parishes all said they did not start submitting funds being held in their advance fee accounts for cases that had remained dormant for five years or more to the Louisiana Treasury’s Unclaimed Property Office until after Thibodeaux was under investigation.
In Lafayette Parish, for example, McLindon said the Clerk of Court did not submit any checks to unclaimed property from 2008 to 2016. In 2017, McLindon said the parish submitted more than 1,000 unclaimed property checks.
“I think, since Mr. Thibodeaux has been charged, every clerk in the state is sending checks to unclaimed property,” Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret said.
On the other hand, Perret also said that his office never kept overages from his office’s day-to-day operation in a petty cash fund, nor did his office move unearned funds from the advance fee account to the office’s operating account. He also said that his office never charged an administration fee for moving funds that had remained dormant.
“Show me a law that says I can charge a fee, and I will do it,” Perret said.
Jane Pilan, the chief deputy clerk in St. Mary Parish, said that office would send refund checks to litigants for any unspent fees unless there was less than $15 in the account, at which point it was moved to the office’s salary fund. If the checks sent to litigants went uncashed, Pilan said those transactions were noted as administrative fees, even though there is no statutory rule for it.
She also said her office was not sending unclaimed funds to the state treasury, although the office has put a process in place and has caught up with the backlog of unclaimed monies.
“We are a small office, and it is a time-intensive process,” Pilan said.
Pilan said that to her knowledge the St. Mary Clerk of Court’s office did use xerox or certified copies as its transaction code for moving fees from the advance fee fund without actually providing any copies, but changed that notation in the 1990s to “administrative fee.”
In Vermilion Parish, Clerk of Court Diane Broussard said her office began charging a $100 fee for dormant accounts, but stopped after six months on advice from Louisiana Clerk of Court Association Executive Director Debbie Hudnall.
She also said she spoke to Thibodeaux after the LLA investigative audit, and that he told her the fee was not legal.
“He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter how much you are taking, it’s wrong,’” Broussard said. After talking to Hudnall, Broussard said her office stopped charging the fee “immediately.”
She also said her office is trying to get its unclaimed property program in place.
“We have not sent any funds to unclaimed property yet,” Broussard said. “We have started the process, but have not sent any checks yet.”
Hudnall told the jury that Thibodeaux’s indictment shook up clerks across the state. She agreed when McLindon characterized the news as sending “shockwaves” through the clerk community.
“My phone was ringing off the hook,” Hudnall said.
She also stated that advance fee accounts and unclaimed property training were not part of the curricula the association offered at its twice-annual training seminars until after the Iberia Parish investigation.
“When this issue came to our attention, we did some additional training,” said Hudnall who previously served 27 years as the East Feliciana Parish Clerk of Court. “There is no way we can train on every little detail.”
All four clerks, however, agreed that funds should never be moved from the advance fee fund without services being rendered to justify the expense.
It is not only large issues that are being charged in Thibodeaux’s indictment. Previously, Deputy Clerk Donna Jolivette testified that she had received a Sam’s Club membership card from Thibodeaux under the office’s account, but had not paid the membership fee for several years. Thibodeaux had renewed the card in her name until the LLA audit came out.
Although the cost, estimated at $160 over four years, was minimal, the use of public funds for the purchase makes it a felony.
The trial was delayed for half an hour Saturday afternoon when a fire alarm went off in a law library on the second floor of the courthouse, forcing the evacuation of the courtroom. Testimony resumed shortly afterward, with 16th Judicial District Judge Lewis Pitman thanking the audience and court workers for their calm and patience with the delay.
The trial is scheduled to resume Monday morning at 9 a.m.