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DOWN THE DRAIN

On Feb. 3, 2022, Lagniappe published documents indicating mass financial abuse by former contractors, employees and board members at the Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Prichard. State and federal law enforcement agencies have since launched an investigation into what the board's attorney referred to as the 'biggest case of public corruption' he's ever seen.

Audit indicates former Prichard Water Board manager misused public funds, DA quiet

Posted by GABRIEL TYNES | Feb. 3, 2022

Perhaps one of the most baffling purchases Nia Bradley made with the public money she controlled as the manager of the Water Works & Sewer Board of the City of Prichard was a textbook entitled “Understanding Business.”

It’s unclear if she ever studied business, but according to an audit of significant credit card transactions presented to the board during an executive session last week, Bradley paid $175.25 for the book on June 4, 2020, in the middle of a multi-year spending spree where credit cards under Bradley’s authority were also used to purchase luxury goods at retailers including Gucci and Louis Vuitton, first-class airfare, personal chauffeurs and five-star accommodations in locations including New York, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta, plus food for a food truck allegedly purchased by — and then stolen from — the Prichard Water Board.

The audit, obtained exclusively by Lagniappe, indicates Bradley and her associates used the Water Board’s public funds to pay for nearly $140,000 worth of personal and travel expenses in a one-year period, purchase more than $38,000 on Mardi Gras supplies for the 2019 and 2020 carnival seasons, while they also transferred more than $248,000 to a local business called Unlimited Auto, which provided no invoices or receipts to the Water Board for any services provided.

The bulk of the latter expenses were on a Water Board credit card controlled by former employee Randy Burden, who tax records indicate also co-owns several properties in Mobile County with Bradley.

Bradley, whose vague 2017 employment contract was approved by the board despite concerns over its lack of accountability, first came under fire in 2019 for approving expenses including “smart” garbage cans for the Water Board office and lunches and swag for employees. She quit in May 2021 after the Prichard City Council appointed new members to the Water Board, but the credit card audit uncovered a staggering $4 million in unquestioned expenses during Bradley’s tenure. More concerning, the board has yet to examine other accounts under Bradley’s control.

Meanwhile, according to separate documents recently provided to Lagniappe, the utility is in such dire financial condition that its bond rating is expected to be lowered to BBB-, a “junk bond” status known as likely to default. The five-member Water Board, which is also involved in a lawsuit with the city of Prichard over maintenance of fire hydrants, has more than $55 million in outstanding debt.

According to a credit report, while Bradley and other employees were globe trotting and shopping freely, the board’s cash levels fell from $2.3 million in 2019 to to just $575,000 in 2021, leaving less than a month of operating revenues in the bank. The agency’s recommendation to lower the board’s bond rating was also based on “financial management practices and policies we consider weak, given the board’s lack of long range planning and unreliable budgeting.”

The board, which already charges a higher rate for water than neighboring utilities in a city with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the state, may be forced to raise rates to cover the losses under Bradley’s tenure.

And while the findings have been presented to the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office, District Attorney Ashley Rich said today she could not comment on the matter. Similarly, Prichard Water Board Chairman Russell Heidelberg said since the issue has been turned over to law enforcement, he declined to comment. Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner deferred comment to the City Council, which appoints the Water Board.

While Bradley dismissed early concerns about her expenses as efforts to boost employee morale, improve efficiency in the office and — in the case of lunches with consultants — to comply with state ethics laws, the audit leaves little room for any similar justification. It’s unclear if the board offered to pay for Bradley’s education or educational expenses, but the business textbook was part of at least $3,910 spent at Bishop State Community College on Bradley’s credit card.

Less than two weeks after she bought the book, she paid $775.20 for a single piece of luggage from Gucci. Other personal expenses do not include itemized receipts, but include at least $16,169 in payments to Louis Vuitton, $1,278 to Dillard’s and other expenses at JC Penny, TJ Maxx and Victoria’s Secret. A staggering $15,428 was spent at mesmereyez.com for what are described as “color cosmetic contact lenses.”

A credit card under the name of another employee, Cordelia Leggett, was used for a $800 purchase at GameStop, various airfare, and more than $2,341 at Columbia Southern University.

Bradley’s board credit card paid for personal subscriptions to YouTube music, Apple Music, Hulu and Netflix.

On many expense reports that accompany some of the purchases, Bradley noted she had “lost the receipt” and provided no additional documentation about the expenses. Those include more than $1,157 spent at Sam’s Club and several purchases from retailers including Best Buy, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Lowe’s.

During a visit to New York in October 2019, Bradley charged $629.77 to her company credit card for six hours of personal driving by a limousine service. She requested an upgrade at the four-star hotel where she stayed — the Hilton Midtown — charging the Water Board more than $2,148 for a four-night stay. She also got a second room at an additional $2,099. Receipts indicate she purchased nine airline tickets for the trip at $1,182 each — a total of $10,638 — but to top it off, she also bought a $718 travel insurance policy from a third-party vendor.

While she was in New York, she mailed herself at least six packages via Fed-Ex, some with declared values as high as $5,000, and charged the shipping to the Water Board. The same month, she ordered 100 various lunch bags and coolers from Yeti, for a total charge of $4,749.

She sent thousands of dollars to various individuals for unidentified “goods and services” and in November 2019, her expenses included $3,324.57 to a vendor identified only as “G,” for goods or services that are not disclosed.

The New York trip was one of many for Bradley and other Water Board employees. The audit indicates more than $16,000 was spent at the Hilton Hotel in Sandestin; $1,654 at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Orange Beach; $3,071 at the Marriott Marquis in Chicago and $5,780 was spent at the five-star Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. In January 2021, Bradley plunked down another $1,647 for a stay in the five-star Waldorf Roosevelt in New Orleans.

Burden’s involvement is unclear, but credit cards in his name or otherwise paid by the Water Board transferred a total of $248,206 to Unlimited Auto between March 2020 and May 2021, with no receipts provided or maintained. Bradley once spent $2,419.99 at Mosley’s Meat Market on a “custom order.” An accompanying expense report notes the order was for “the food truck we ordered.”

Heidelberg acknowledged the Water Board at some point during Bradley’s tenure did indeed purchase a food truck, but added other details are a part of a criminal investigation. According to someone with knowledge of the truck, it was later allegedly stolen from the Water Board parking lot by a Water Board employee.

Other documents indicate the board may have agreed to pay the employee’s bond and legal fees, subject to a repayment through a payroll deduction. But according to records, the employee quit before the debt was repaid.

Heidelberg said he filed a complaint against Bradley with the Alabama Ethics Commission, but the investigation has otherwise been turned over to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office. He added that many of the board members were surprised and upset by the audit, and said it’s too early to say what the long term implications of the expenses will be on the utility’s budget. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the board held no meetings, in-person or virtual, between March 2020 and April 2021, Heidelberg said.

“I personally don’t think we’ll have to raise rates, not at this point, at least not on customers,” he said. “But the bondholders also control that.”

Board attorney Jay Ross, who also attended the special meeting, did not immediately respond to request for comment. Bradley has since been replaced by former Bayou La Batre Utilities director Michael McClantoc.


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