Since it relaunched a year and a half ago, the white-collar crime unit of the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office has been busy, even if most of its cases have flown under the radar.
From public corruption to consumer protection, the unit has taken on dozens of cases since January 2018 after being shelved for the better part of two years during a legal battle over funding between District Attorney Ashley Rich and the Mobile County Commission.
Since settling with the county, Rich’s office has received an additional $2.7 million from the county every year, and some of that has gone toward reestablishing the white-collar unit under the leadership of civil lawyer turned Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Clay T. Rossi.
“We want the public and the legal community to know the District Attorney’s Office is ready, willing and able to handle these kinds of complex crimes,” Rossi said.
While the white-collar unit is active once again, it still doesn’t have the staffing levels it did when it was eliminated in 2016. At the time, two ADAs and two staff members were laid off because of budget constraints. Today, Rossi serves as the only ADA and only has one staff member.
There doesn’t appear to be any plans to expand the unit at the moment, but Rossi said that’s OK. No cases are being turned away, and while Rossi stays busy with what comes in through the charging office and Mobile Police Department’s financial crime unit, he said every ADA is busy.
“We have the resources to do what’s being brought to us, but I don’t know that we’re at the point where can be proactive and go try to ferret out things,” he said. “Some people can debate whether that’s good or bad, but hopefully we’re being a reactive as we possibly can.”
One of the most high-profile items on Rossi’s docket right now is the criminal case against James Blackman, former assistant to Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner. In March, Blackman pleaded guilty to dozens of theft charges and to using his position for personal gain.
In all, Blackman is accused of stealing well over $100,000 from the city of Prichard.
Another of Rossi’s criminal cases that made headlines is the one pending against Michael Barber, a 26-year veteran of the Mobile Police Department who retired in the middle of an internal investigation into allegations that he’d been forging traffic tickets. Barber was accused of writing fake tickets to nonexistent motorists to help justify overtime he was claiming.
He is currently facing a single charge of first-degree theft and 45 counts of second-degree forgery.
“Public corruption cases can come to us a number of ways, depending on who discovers the activity. We also have things referred to us through the Alabama Ethics Commission, and I’m not privy to what investigations they may have going on,” Rossi said. “But, those high-profile cases like [Blackman’s and Barber’s] are generally a small percentage of what we do.”
Any case that puts a public official in the crosshairs tends to catch the eye of the public and the media, but the white-collar unit also spends a lot of time wading through the mundane. Yet, Rossi said those kinds of cases are sometimes the only remedy for people who’ve been ripped off.
Over the last year and a half, the unit has taken on a lot of consumer-protection cases, which unlike theft or violent crimes, often skirts the line between criminal and civil action. That takes a unique skill set but also gives prosecutors unique tools to dissuade deceptive business practices.
From dealers selling cars with altered odometers to businesses being embezzled by an employee, Rossi said there’s a lot of activity that can leave one party with the short end of the stick. And without a dedicated white-collar team, those kinds of things often fall through the cracks.
“The community is certainly going to care about violent crime, but if you’re a small-business owner and you’ve been ripped off, that’s not going to be a priority for many people other than you,” he said. “Police aren’t going to get in the middle of a business dispute, so the only option for a consumer is to file a lawsuit. For some people, the economics of that don’t make any sense. Are you going to spend $3,000 to pay a lawyer in hopes of getting $2,000 back?”
However, through civil consumer protection actions, Rossi said local prosecutors and the Alabama Attorney General’s Office can step in on behalf of consumers, not only to get restitution for victims but also to seek injunctions to stop routinely deceptive businesses from operating.
In addition to those types of cases, the white-collar unit also takes on things like credit card fraud, identity theft and a lot of cases that fall under the “theft by deception” category. One of the things that makes a crime white-collar worthy is the level of complexity involved.
“Ideally, I would like to see White Collar handle every case of identity theft or cases with a certain level of complexity,” Rossi said. “Right now, some are getting handled by other ADAs.”
When the white-collar team isn’t working on its own docket, it will assist with other cases that have a significant paper trail or require a more document-intensive approach. Most recently, Rossi has helped with the trial of Steven Mason, who’s accused of murdering Ke’lei Morris.
In addition to the murder charge, which involved a murder-for-hire plot itself, Mason has been charged two times since his arrest with attempting to have witnesses killed from jail. In those situations, Rossi said he’s happy to step in and take something off another ADA’s plate if he can.
“The other ADAs’ caseloads are enormous, but when you’re handling that type of case, it can be a little different and more time-intensive. For things like robbery cases, you plug in the respective facts, obviously, but a lot of the framework is going to be the same,” Rossi said. “But when you get into document reviewing, sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to find.”
More information about the DA’s white-collar unit can found here, and the office has also set up a reporting line for white-collar crime tips at (251) 208-7182.
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