Art appraiser charged with helping New Orleans police officer, restaurateur in insurance scheme

A Las Vegas art appraiser has been charged in federal court with helping a controversial restaurateur and a New Orleans police officer carry out a scheme to soak an insurance company over an art heist that never happened.

Michael Schofield faces a count of misprision of a felony — essentially, knowing of a crime and not reporting it.

Schofield was charged late Monday in a bill of information, typically a sign that a defendant has signed a plea deal and will cooperate with the government. Schofield’s lawyer, Steve London, declined to comment.

Federal authorities in April secured a guilty plea from the restaurateur, Fouad Zeton, and assuming Schofield pleads guilty, prosecutors are expected to take aim at their next target, New Orleans police officer Christian Claus. Claus, a seven-year veteran of the NOPD and a former lawyer who also hails from Nevada, has been on desk duty since at least December, when news broke that he was the subject of the investigation.

Claus is described clearly but not named in the documents, instead referred to as “Individual A,” in keeping with Justice Department policies that frown on defaming people in court documents who have yet to be accused of crimes. Schofield admits sending Claus an email that “misrepresented [his] honest assessment of the appraised art’s value.”

Claus’s lawyer, Billy Gibbens, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

It’s not Schofield’s first brush with the law. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison in 2008 after he pleaded guilty in California to grand theft. He admitted pretending that a sketch by Pablo Picasso valued at $200,000, called “Le Couple,” belonged to him, and using it to secure a $40,000 loan. 

Zeton gained notoriety as the owner of the Magnolia Mansion, a popular fund-raising venue for a long list of politicians that also attracted complaints from many of its neighbors. Zeton has bragged of his close relationships with local judges and other politicians.

In court documents, Zeton has admitted he and Claus, who knew one another, concocted a scheme in which Zeton would falsely report a number of paintings stolen from his Lakeview home. Claus was to help authenticate the theft, and the two would share in inflated insurance proceeds.

When Zeton reported the theft, on Nov. 6, 2019, Claus turned up to take a report, but pretended that he and Zeton were strangers in video captured by Claus’s body-worn camera, prosecutors and Zeton have said. In fact, prosecutors said Claus and Zeton spoke on the phone immediately before Zeton called 911 to report his paintings stolen. 

The city has refused to provide the video in response to public-records requests, citing the likelihood of criminal litigation.

Zeton has said Claus filed a false police report that said the allegedly stolen paintings had a combined value of $128,500. In fact, the paintings had not been stolen and were worth substantially less than that, prosecutors say.

Zeton has alleged the scheme was initially proposed by Claus, who said he could use his position as a police officer and his “connections” to Schofield to help pull it off.

According to Zeton’s plea documents, Schofield “falsely appraised” the value of the never-stolen paintings at $128,500, and he was paid by Claus for the service. 

Court documents in Zeton’s case say that Claus was to receive a kickback from the proceeds resulting from the false insurance claim. In addition, prosecutors alleged that Zeton had promised to use his influence with “a high-ranking NOPD official” to get Claus better posts and promotions. It’s unclear who that official is, or whether Zeton or his friend ever attempted to help Claus.

Claus has a spotty disciplinary record. He was suspended for two days in 2019 for violating the NOPD’s chase policy and allegedly lying about it. A year earlier, he was reprimanded for allowing a handcuffed suspect to escape from his squad car.

Zeton’s sentencing, initially set for August, is now set for Dec. 7 before U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown. He faces a maximum of five years in prison.

Zeton has close connections to a number of local politicians, including Mayor LaToya Cantrell and several local judges. As a result, his legal troubles sparked speculation that the case might mushroom into something more substantial.

Zeton himself encouraged such talk, telling reporters he was collateral damage in prosecutors’ hunt for a bigger target.

“I have no idea who is the big fish, but I’m not the one,” he said, adding: “This has nothing to do with artwork.”

Zeton said last year that the FBI had asked him about his relationships with various political figures. But he also claimed he had little to tell them.

Indeed, the court documents released in connection with Zeton’s guilty plea say nothing about his political connections.

In addition to owning the Magnolia Mansion, Zeton also owned Dante’s Pizza on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. He is a former boxer who emigrated from Syria.

Zeton often lent out his mansion for political fund-raisers. Among those he has sought to help: Civil District Judge Ellen Hazeur, Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens and Cantrell, whom he has described as “a friend” and “a good mayor.”

Just days before the FBI raided Zeton’s mansion in 2021 and seized some of the artwork in question, he hosted a concert by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, who was then awaiting sentencing in federal court after being convicted of pilfering more than $1 million from the city’s library foundation. Among those present was Cantrell, who introduced Mayfield as “a true son of the city” and urged attendees to support him.

-Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report.

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