Teresa Lewis, fiscal services manager for the Water Works and Sewer Board of the city of Prichard, received a 10 percent “special merit increase” from the Mobile County Personnel Board on June 1, 2021, about a month after former manager Nia Bradley resigned. As Lagniappe previously reported, both Bradley and Lewis are included in the list of employees or contractors whose Water Board credit cards were used to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal expenses, travel and luxury goods.
Lewis’ signature is also on dozens of suspicious purchase orders from Bradley’s time as manager and curiously, her raise came just after a turnover among the political appointees of the Water Board.
Mobile County Personnel Board Director George Smith did not respond to questions about the origins or timing of the request for Lewis’ pay raise, but it came in tandem with a 5 percent cost of living adjustment for all employees of the Water Board, meaning Lewis is paid 15 percent more now than she was earning at the time of the alleged fraud.
“Ms. Lewis exemplifies an exceptional job performance and consistently exceeds the majority of job standards and requirements, being a major contributor for the jurisdiction,” according to an agenda item accompanying the pay increase. “She is the key employee in charge of two agency projects of the new accounting and billing system as well as assisting with refinancing the Board’s bonds and other invaluable financial assets to the Board. Ms. Lewis continues to reflect a willingness to learn and share valuable information to assist others in understanding the workings of the agency.”
As Lagniappe reported last week, Lewis also received at least 10 of the 50 $500 Visa gift cards that were purchased by the board as Christmas bonuses in 2020, in addition to bonus checks that were cut from the Board’s operating account after the gift cards didn’t arrive in time. Lewis is a minor character in the credit card anomalies that were reported last month, but records indicate she once used her Water Board card to spend $26.30 at TJ Maxx and $705 at Columbia Southern University. More than $4,000 Lewis spent on travel expenses to a 2020 conference was eventually refunded, however.
In other news last week, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich held a press conference to announce a state and federal investigation into the spending, suggesting employees would be interviewed and records subpoenaed, but she offered few other details. The issue was also broached for the first time during a Prichard City Council meeting Feb. 10, but not one elected official made a statement about the allegations. Interestingly, a request by Councilman Derrick Griffin to increase water rates was pulled from the Feb. 3 agenda, the same day Lagniappe broke news about the credit card expenses. Businesses tied to Griffin have been identified as profiting from Water Board expenses.
“As citizens we need better representation on that Water Board,” Dominique Sellers told the council. “No friends, no family, no nothing, just better representation.”
Lagniappe has also reported that a board human resource specialist, Taiecha Tucker, was also rumored to be a personal friend of Griffin. In 2019, Tucker married Water Board Chairman Nathaniel Inge. Tucker’s credit card was used on four-star hotel accommodations in Chicago, as well as for travel and food expenses.
Lloyd May of Eight Mile told the Prichard City Council last week to hold a public hearing about the alleged fraud.
“The citizens of Prichard are fed up with what we’ve been going through for the past 20 years with high water rates, stealing, misleading and mistreating,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment.”
The Water Board itself canceled its regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 14 because of a lack of quorum. The board has yet to discuss the allegations in a public meeting.
But on Feb. 1, two Water Board members, John Johnson and Cherry Doyle, held an unofficial meeting to discuss the proposal to increase water rates. Doyle, who was appointed to the board in late 2020, said a rate increase was unnecessary.
“We’re already paying enough for water,” she said, suggesting she’s been prevented from learning more about the board’s financial position. “I’m working hard trying to find out some things because they are keeping us in the dark about a lot of things.”
Johnson agreed, saying “we have money” and admitting he was among a contingent of representatives who traveled to New York in 2019 to secure a bond worth nearly $40 million to dig new water wells. Currently, Prichard purchases its water wholesale from the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS), an arrangement board members claim is financially unsustainable. The plan to dig the wells has been more than a decade in the making, and board Chairman Russell Heidelburg told Lagniappe it’s close to reality.
“We are sending out bids for drilling test wells this week or next week,” Heidelburg said earlier this month. “We already have the money, so once we know where to drill the wells, we’ll move right along.”
Bond money is restricted to the purposes for which it was borrowed, the accountant said, and is held in an escrow account until expenses related to the project need to be reimbursed. As such, it is unlikely any portion of the $40 million cash infusion was misspent.
Still, the board has yet to review other expense accounts or store credit cards used by Bradley and other employees and contractors. Last week, the accountant released a statement calling the situation in Prichard “the biggest case of fraud I have ever seen.”
“My report represents approximately 20 percent of what I believe could be a $1.5 million or more fraud,” they wrote. “In my professional opinion, this may eventually lead to embezzlement, mail fraud, wire fraud and credit card fraud charges.”
The Water Board meeting has been rescheduled for Feb. 22 at 4:40 p.m.
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