Iberia Parish Clerk of Court Michael Thibodeaux was in court Thursday for the second day of his felony trial, which comes nearly a year after he was indicted by a grand jury on 14 criminal counts.
Thibodeaux faces one count of racketeering, three counts of theft over $25,000, two counts of filing or maintaining public records, seven counts of malfeasance in office and one count of perjury.
The case stems from his alleged theft of advance court costs that were either due back to people who filed in court or to the state as unclaimed property. The alleged crimes happened during various spans of time from 1998 until July 2017, according to the indictment.
Thibodeaux’s trial began on Monday with jury selection, which wrapped up on Wednesday where 16th Judicial District Judge Lewis Pitman heard opening arguments from the District Attorney’s office and defense attorneys led by John McLindon. The prosecution was led by Assistant District Attorney Craig Colwart.
Thursday’s proceedings focused primarily on witness testimony. The first witness called to the stand was Ryan Stamper with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office who testified about the investigative report on the clerk’s office that led to Thibodeaux’s indictment.
The audit found that under Thibodeaux’s leadership, the clerk’s office held on to more than $300,000 in court fees that were supposed to be returned to court plaintiffs and defendants. More than $200,000 of that was used on salaries and other expenses for his office, auditors found.
Ryan Huval was then called to the stand. Huval is the former Chief Deputy Clerk of Court who first discovered improprieties in the finances of the clerk’s office and alerted the legislative auditor. Huval is also running to replace Thibodeaux as clerk of court in this fall’s election.
Huval testified that Thibodeaux fired him after learning that he was the one who filed a complaint with the legislative auditor’s office.
Louisiana State Trooper Darren Juneau then took the stand to answer questions on how the state police conducted their investigation into Thibodeaux and what led them to execute a search warrant on the clerk’s office.
During much of Thursday’s testimony, the prosecution focused on a process referred to as “suit cleanup,” which involves the monthly evaluation of money paid to the clerk’s office for advanced court fees for upcoming legal proceedings.
According to the Legislative Auditor’s report:
Services rendered by the Clerk of Court are charged against advance costs as self-generated fees/income; earned amounts are then transferred from the advance deposit fund to the salary fund and used to pay Clerk of Court salaries, benefits, and other operating expenses.
Once a lawsuit is concluded and all fees and other charges of record are paid, clerks of court are obligated to refund unused advance costs to the plaintiff’s attorney. Clerks of court are also required to refund unused advance costs even when a lawsuit is not concluded if no pleadings have been filed and the suit has been completely inactive for five years pursuant to La. R.S. 13:842(B).
Tracey Hebert was called to testify later in the afternoon. Hebert has worked in the clerk’s office for 28 years and spent several of those years working alongside Thibodeaux as a secretary and then a deputy clerk of court. Hebert testified that her relationship with Thibodeaux was “close” and that she thought of him as a brother.
Hebert then testified on how she was approached by the state police to use a camera to record a conversation between her and Thibodeaux about the funds that he is accused of using illegally.
Thibodeaux is further accused of perjury for allegedly making a false statement in a judicial proceeding, of allegedly filing or altering public records, of malfeasance for all of the alleged accusations and of racketeering for the “enterprise” the grand jury found involved these alleged acts.
Court is scheduled to resume on Friday morning. The trial is expected to continue into the weekend.