Prosecution rests case vs. Thibodeaux

The prosecution rested its case against Iberia Parish Clerk of Court Mike Thibodeaux Monday evening after a day that began with hours of testimony from the office’s accountant and auditor and ended with the prosecution playing three-plus hours of recorded grand jury testimony from Thibodeaux.

Things took a turn during the testimony of Danny Davis, who served as an accountant compiling financial reports and handling payroll for the Clerk of Court’s office. Davis said he had helped Thibodeaux in moving funds from the office’s advance fee account to the office’s salary fund, possibly opening himself up to criminal jeopardy.

Over the years, the office 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.

“We created the checks in EasyAccount,” Davis said in answer to a question from prosecutor Craig Colwart about the 344 replacement checks.

That led to a stop in the testimony, the clearing of the jury from the room and a meeting between attorneys from both sides with 16th Judicial District Judge Lewis Pitman in his chambers.

When they returned, Pitman instructed Davis that he was allowed to not answer questions and also could plead the Fifth Amendment to prevent incriminating himself. Davis at first said he did not want to proceed without his attorney present.

“The DA can grant him immunity and we can continue,” McLindon said. “I do not have that power.”

Davis did continue, only to get hammered from Colwart on discrepancies between his grand jury testimony and his testimony in court Monday. Colwart focused on Davis’ answers regarding why the checks to move funds used the same check numbers as uncashed refund checks initially sent to litigants to pay back monies they had on deposit for cases pending in the court.

When Davis complained about the way he had been treated in the grand jury, Colwart quipped, “Are you having a good time now?”

One of the issues Davis said prevented the return of the money to the litigants was that there was no list of names available to him. He was explaining the problem to Colwart when the prosecutor showed him a list former Chief Deputy Clerk Ryan Huval had provided of all 344 original refund checks and the recipients.

“Why didn’t Ryan give us that report when we were in the office?” Davis asked. Colwart said Huval had already been fired, but Davis clarified that they had discussions in 2012 about the issue while talking with auditor Perry Templeton. Colwart mistakenly thought Davis meant when they were talking to the state Legislative Auditor in 2016.

Davis said Huval had been involved in a meeting discussing the refunding of money from uncashed checks, but never mentioned he had a list of those account names.

Huval printed the list in June 2012 and did not disclose that he had it until 2016, when he presented it to the state Legislative Auditor.

“I don’t know why Ryan didn’t give us the report,” Davis said again.

Parts of the testimony also focused on Thibodeaux’s lack of computer expertise. Huval was more experienced in the operation of the office’s software. After he was fired, he landed a job with Software Solutions, a company that provides data solutions for municipal clerks and assessors. The Iberia Parish Assessor’s office, run by Huval’s father, Ricky Huval, is a Software Solutions client.

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.

Templeton said he never told Thibodeaux to move unearned money from the advance fee account to the salary fund.

“I told him to clean up the account, not to clean up the individual cases,” Templeton said.

Colwart listed several documents from previous audit reports in which Templeton cited references to the revised statutes governing the handling of funds in the various clerk accounts. Templeton said that the audits as prepared were accurate.

“Did you subsequently learn you were given false information?” Colwart asked.

“Yes,” Templeton answered.

Templeton also said he had never heard about the office’s “box of cash” that was used to hold overages from the front desk until 2016. 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.

“Chief Deputy David Ditch called one day to ask what to do with it,” Templeton said. “I told him to deposit it in the salary account.”

The jurors spent their last three hours of the day listening to testimony Thibodeaux gave to the grand jury in 2018, although Thibodeaux himself asked to be excused while the tape was played. Some of the information given — like Thibodeaux saying that he had brought the information about his predecessor to former Clerk of Court Horace LeBlanc, not directly to the state police — was not a surprise.

At one point however, Thibodeaux described his fear in late 2015, before he fired Ryan Huval.

“I said he and his daddy are going to go to the legislative auditor and his daddy is going to raise my taxes,” Thibodeaux told the grand jury. “And he actually raised the taxes on my entire neighborhood.”

He also lashed out at 16th Judicial Court District Attorney Bo Duhé in the testimony.

“You came to my office on 7/21 and said that 50 other clerks told you they did the same thing.”

“I never said that 50 other clerks told me that,” Duhé could be heard responding.

“So if 50 other clerks are breaking the law, it’s ok?” said First Assistant District Attorney Rob Vines, who conducted the grand jury testimony.

“We were not aware of it,” Thibodeaux said.

The defense is expected to call witnesses this morning. Once the defense rests, closing arguments will begin. If there are no delays, the jury should get the case this afternoon.

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