Multiple law enforcement agencies descended upon the administration building of the Water Works and Sewer Board of the city of Prichard Tuesday afternoon to serve a search warrant related to allegations of fraud.
The warrant came 19 days after Lagniappe first reported that former Manager Nia Bradley and other employees used board-issued credit cards to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of personal expenses, including on travel, restaurants, Mardi Gras throws and luxury goods from vendors including Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
Further reporting has indicated that under Bradley’s control, the Water Board itself held no public meetings for more than a year, while purchase orders and contracts were rubber-stamped by Bradley and other employees, apparently with little or no oversight or basic financial controls. Bradley’s tenure also saw an exodus of employees from the merit-based Mobile County Personnel Board, some of whom were replaced with contract employees alleged to be friends and family of board members or key employees.
Bradley resigned when the Prichard City Council replaced board members Ayanna Payton and Nathaniel Inge with former Prichard Mayor Ron Davis and Cherry Doyle, respectively. It was Davis who ordered the credit card review last year, and the findings were presented to the Board and District Attorney’s office in December.
Davis died of a lingering illness Sunday, and the four surviving board members were expected to meet at 4:30 this afternoon for its first meeting since the allegations were made public. But the meeting was canceled after agents from the FBI, IRS, Alabama Attorney General’s Office, Mobile County District Attorney’s Office and Mobile County Sheriff’s Office raided the building shortly after 3 p.m.
The show of force led Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner to break his long silence on the allegations. Today, he said he tried to sound the alarm about improprieties on the Water Board three years ago, but his concerns “fell on deaf ears.”
“I can’t tell you the number of calls I’ve received in relation to [the Water Board],” he said. “Well here we are and after today, I think we’ll find ourselves moving in the right direction to find some closure as to what has taken place.”
Gardner cautioned that the investigation is in its early stages and anyone who may be implicated is innocent until proven guilty, but said he hoped it would lead to significant changes about how the board is managed and its arms-length relationship with the city. Water board members are appointed by the City Council to six-year terms, but otherwise enjoy complete autonomy.
“We have to have a better control mechanism … policies and controls that are put in place to help us move this Water Board in the right direction,” he said, suggesting it would be a legislative effort.
Meanwhile, customer and longtime consumer advocate Katie Davis was on the scene, and was the only civilian allowed into the building during the execution of the search warrant. When she emerged about 35 minutes later, Davis told Lagniappe she shared documents and information with investigators.
“I told them there’s obvious collusion between Prichard City Council and Prichard Water Board,” Davis said, specifically implicating former council members Severia Campbell Morris and Lorenzo Martin, as well as current Councilman Derrick Griffin. Griffin, records indicate, personally profited from some Water Board purchase orders during Nia Bradley’s tenure.
Davis said she was delighted to see today’s enforcement action, adding it was “a long time coming.”
“This is a wonderful development but I really hope they do a thorough job and investigate everyone involved,” she said.”If we hadn’t gotten rid of some council members, they would have continued to protect what was going on today.”
Tommy Loftis, a spokesman for the FBI, could only confirm the agency was on scene as part of a “multi-agency enforcement effort.” He could not release details about the warrant itself or what information investigators were seeking.
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