Keith Blackwood, chief assistant district attorney and candidate for Mobile County’s top law enforcement post, said he wouldn’t change anything about the investigation into former Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board (PWWSB) Manager Nia Bradley, despite criticism of the office over the ongoing inquiry.
Blackwood said District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office was working on the fraud case before Lagniappe and other media reported on it. He said investigations like that take time.
“It is extraordinarily complicated,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts to it. It’s a multi-agency investigation, it’s a multi-agency prosecution, and so it is something that takes time. You know, we want justice to be swift, but it can’t be reckless.”
The investigation into Bradley and the PWWSB marks a high-profile, white-collar case for Rich’s office, and while there is currently a team devoted to white-collar crime, that wasn’t always the case, Blackwood said. He believes this has led to the false perception that prosecutions of these crimes don’t happen.
“Prosecuting white-collar crime is absolutely vital to the community,” he said. “If it’s not prosecuted, then you have rampant corruption, businesses that suffer, and when you have businesses that suffer, people suffer. So, yes, it’s absolutely important to prosecute those crimes.”
Funding cuts in previous years hurt the white-collar division, Blackwood said, but the group made a major and important hire recently.
“Because we went without a white-collar prosecutor for a time due to funding issues, I think there’s a perception that we didn’t give it enough attention, but we felt it important enough to work out those issues and have the position again,” he said. “We also have something we’ve never had before in our white-collar unit — a forensic accountant, which makes all the difference in the world.”
In addition to the new addition, Blackwood said it’s important for the office to train local law enforcement agencies to be better equipped to investigate white-collar crimes.
“Our federal agencies have dedicated departments of analysts to pursue white-collar crime,” he said. “Our local agencies don’t have that, so we can do more training with them to make the investigations better.”
While Blackwood wouldn’t have changed tactics in the PWWSB investigation, he said a vote for him would be more than a rubber stamp for another term for Rich. The two prosecutors are different, he said. Blackwood noted that Rich has been “instrumental” in his career as he has served the office for 14 years and has led most divisions.
“We have two completely different temperaments and we actually complement each other very well when we try cases together because of our different temperaments, but that also translates to the administrative areas of the office,” he said. “We would be totally different managers with different management styles. The way we communicate with the public is very different and I can’t say one is good or bad, we’re just different. We share a lot of the same values, but we have different perspectives on some things.”
As district attorney, Blackwood said his office would have a responsibility not only in enforcing the law, but in addressing crime in a proactive way. This includes plans for how to deal with a surge in gun violence in Mobile.
Blackwood said he would seek additional state funding to increase the size of the district attorney’s youth and family services division. The division would help intervene before issues with children become bigger problems.
“I think we can get some outside funding from the state that will fund even more employees that can get into homes where problems are developing and try to solve them before the problems get big,” he said. “Number one, why aren’t children in school? If they’re not in school, what can we do to support them, help them to do better in school?”
Keeping kids in school would be a great way to fight crime, Blackwood said.
“So, I think education on the front end. Work partnering with schools is really important,” he said. “I mean, if we keep kids in school, K-12, that’s half the battle because a lot of these gun crimes are young kids that aren’t in school and have a lot of time on their hands.”
Instead of lessening focus on what some would call low-level offenses, Blackwood would continue to prosecute those crimes, but would cut deals to help end the backlog being experienced in courtrooms.
“Now, the key to that, you don’t just give away a case,” he said. “Someone breaks the law, they must face a consequence.”
However, the process could be made better by hiring more experienced prosecutors at lower levels of court. Previously, he said, Rich’s office hired prosecutors right out of law school to handle cases in district court. While that worked great for a time, the current backlog calls for more experience, he said.
“We need experienced attorneys early in the process in district court — which is the first court a case comes to — that can evaluate the case because they’ve tried cases before,” he said. “They can evaluate the case and make the best determination of what justice is for that particular case at an early stage.”
Blackwood’s vision would require more funding for the district attorney’s office.
While Blackwood is against focusing less on non-violent offenses, he said he does support diversion programs, like veterans’ court and drug court. He hopes the veterans’ court can one day be a standalone program. He also confirmed that a mental health court was in the works for Mobile County.
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