MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Addressing his investigation into allegations of corporate credit card misuse by Prichard Water Board employees, Mobile County Attorney Ashely Rich said on Friday that the investigation would beyond these financial problems.
Rich said his office is also looking into complaints from some Prichard Water Works & Sewer System that they have been overcharged — sometimes by thousands of dollars.
“It’s part of this investigation, yes,” she told reporters.
Jay Ross, an attorney who represents the Prichard Water Board, said the billing issues and the credit card allegations were unrelated. He denied some media reports that the credit card charges under criminal investigation had compromised the utility’s financial solvency.
“That’s not right,” he told FOX10 News this week. “I mean, obviously when you’ve lost a million dollars or more that you’re not aware of, it impacts their budget, but they’re not on the verge of bankruptcy at all.”
Rich, however, said it was too early to determine whether or not the allegations of credit card misuse and overcharging were related.
“I think you have to look at, you know, how much illegal spending has been done, and has that illegal spending contributed to the price increases for citizens?” she said. “I definitely think we need to look at that.”
The credit card allegations revolve around hundreds of thousands of dollars — Ross estimated it could be as much as $1.5 million — in personal expenses charged on credit cards issued to the then-director, Nia Bradley, and other utility executives between 2018 and last year. No one has been charged and Bradley – through his attorney – has denied any wrongdoing.
Board Chairman Russell Heidelberg filed a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission in 2018, raising many of the same issues. But Rich said she was unaware of the allegations related to credit card spending until the recent accounting review requested by Heidelberg.
“We were never asked to investigate fraudulent credit card purchases by Prichard Water Board employees until the last week of December 2021,” she said.
Bradley had been an employee of Prichard’s water system but had signed on as an independent consultant. A February 2018 contract named her interim operations manager “due to the consultant’s high degree of professional competence and individual personality with respect to the specific work to be performed”.
The contract also stipulated that he would engage her as a consultant “in the absence of an equally qualified civil servant”.
Heidelberg, who was then a member of the board of directors but not its chairman, filed a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission the same year, alleging that other board members had signed the independent consultant contract. in order to circumvent the Mobile County staff council and avoid having to advertise. the position. The Ethics Commission did not respond to inquiries from FOX10 News.
The contract prohibits any compensation beyond the monthly fee, which amounts to $150,000 per year. But Bradley’s attorney, Jason Darley, said he had a second contract signed in 2018 which sees his client paying bonuses quarterly. He said the board allowed Bradley to charge personal expenses to his credit card in order to pay for those bonuses.
Darley declined to share the contract with FOX10 News.
Ross said that at one point, Bradley converted to a merit system employee at an hourly rate of $38.83, or about $80,766 per year. Later, he added, she got a raise to $42.86, or more than $89,000 a year.
Rich said Friday her office was receiving help from the Alabama attorney general’s office and federal investigators, though she declined to name the agency. Mobile’s FBI tweeted that it was aware of Prichard’s situation. He said he couldn’t confirm an investigation, but asked people to send information to the prosecutor’s office or the FBI’s mobile field office.
She alluded to “other allegations of illegal spending of money for personal purposes by numerous employees, in addition to credit cards.”
Rich said the credit card receipts have not been formally audited.
“I have to see the magnitude of exactly what is happening,” she said. “We don’t have a full and complete picture of everything that’s going on.”
The investigation, Rich added, will take weeks, if not months.
“This investigation is going to take time,” she said. “We are on it. We work on it daily. And when we have completed our investigation, we will announce the charges, the amounts and who is arrested in this case? »
Updated at 5:40 p.m. with more information on Nia Bradley’s contract with the water board, along with additional comments from District Attorney Ashley Rich.
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