Updated at: 07/24/2013 3:06 PM
By JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN
(AP) NEW HAVEN, Conn. - A former chairman of the tribe that owns Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino was convicted Wednesday of embezzling about $100,000 from his Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to pay for limousine service trips for his mother and satellite radio, cable TV and other personal expenses for himself.
A federal jury in New Haven deliberated less than two hours before finding Michael Thomas guilty of three theft charges.
Thomas’ "fraudulent expenses continued even after they were discovered and he was told to stop," said acting U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly. "The U.S. Attorney’s office is committed to prosecuting corrupt officials at all levels of government _ federal, state, local and tribal."
At his two-day trial, testimony revealed that most of the money went toward a limousine service to bring his ailing mother to medical appointments. Thomas charged the tribe $89,000 for the trips, including $28,000 in tips, according to testimony.
A defense attorney argued the charges for rides to doctor’s appointments were legitimate expenses. Thomas, 45, did not testify and his lawyer did not call any witnesses.
Sentencing was scheduled for Oct. 22. Thomas faces a maximum of up to 25 years in prison but guidelines, which could call for less, have not been determined yet. He also faces a fine of up to $750,000 and forfeiture of $102,000 and two personal computers, prosecutors said.
His attorney, Paul Thomas, said he was very disappointed by the verdict.
The defendant’s brother, tribal treasurer Steven Thomas, is to be tried separately on charges that he stole $700,000 from the tribe.
During closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutor Doug Morabito said Thomas used a tribe-issued credit card "for his own piggy bank" at a time when the organization was struggling financially and laying off employees.
"The people of the Mashantucket community are out $100,000 because Michael Thomas took it," said prosecutor Christopher Mattei.
Paul Thomas told the jury that the government failed to prove its case and that the charges for rides to doctor’s appointments were legitimate expenses.
"What you have in the end is opinion, belief and assumption," Thomas said. "The evidence did not show that Michael Thomas, other than a handful of small charges, made impermissible personal charges or that those charges were part of a scheme or that Michael Thomas acted with any unlawful purpose, intent."
Morabito said Thomas signed a tribal resolution prohibiting use of the credit card for personal expenses. Tribal employees repeatedly advised him he could not use the card for personal expenses, he said.
"Did he stop? No. He kept doing it," Morabito said.
He said Thomas "blatantly and systemically" used the tribe’s money for his personal benefit while it was laying off employees.
"He did it because he could get away with it," Morabito said. "He did it because he couldn’t afford to do it any other way."
Morabito also challenged the use of the limo service, saying the tribe had its own transportation service. Prosecutors asked the jury if it would be OK for a mayor or legislator to use taxpayer money to transport their mother in a limo service’s Cadillac Escalade.
Paul Thomas defended the limo service expenses, saying transportation for medical appointments was within the scope of what the tribe was required to do. He said the tribe’s transportation service did not operate during the early morning hours Thomas’ mother needed rides, though prosecutors said the service tried to accommodate tribal members.
Michael Thomas was a very busy leader, his attorney said.
"He was a man who had heavy burdens and maybe he made some mistakes," Thomas said, adding that they were not intentional or criminal.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)