Prichard water board probe started with food trailer theft, investigator testifies

Judge sends charges against former operations manager to grand jury, hears allegations of tampering by board members
Published: Jun. 2, 2022 at 12:45 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The wide-ranging, multi-agency investigation into financial impropriety at the Prichard water board began with the theft of a food trailer owned by the utility, an investigator testified Thursday.

Ironically, Mobile County District Attorney’s Office Chief Investigator Mike Morgan testified, that incident had nothing to do with defendant Nia Malika Bradley. The former Prichard Water Works & Sewer Board operations manger was no longer employed there at the time. A judge this week sent a theft charge against former employee Dominique Sellers to a grand jury in that case.

But Morgan said an investigation he launched into the food trailer theft led to evidence of hundreds of thousands of dollars of questionable purchases Bradley and other employees charged to utility credit cards.

“There was a lot of alarming purchases, Nia Bradley in particular,” Morgan said.

Mobile County District Judge Zackery Moore determined prosecutors have enough evidence to send charges of first-degree theft by deception and aggravated theft by deception against Bradley to a grand jury. He also found probable cause for a grand jury to review a charge of receiving stolen property against Bradley’s husband, Anthony Bradley.

In addition, the judge agreed to a defense request to modify conditions of bond for both defendants. While they will remain on house arrest, they will be allowed to remove an electronic ankle bracelet and instead be monitored by a cell phone facial recognition system.

Morgan testified that water board chairman Russell Heidelburg came to him in November about the food trailer theft. He said Heidelburg accused board members of John Johnson and Cherry Doyle of interfering with security footage of the theft.

Johnson, who attended Thursday’s hearing, left the courtroom without commenting. Doyle could not be reached for comment.

Morgan said Johnson and Doyle separately contacted the District Attorney’s Office to complain about Heidelburg’s handling of the matter.

“They all, collectively, were making allegations against each other concerning the food trailer,” he said.

Morgan testified that during his investigation, he discovered employees were buying supplies and other items with utility credit cards.

“That was just odd to me,” he said.

Morgan said that when he questioned the utility’s finance clerk, she told him Bradley had prohibited her from reporting those charges to the board.

Federal agents, with the assistance of local authorities, raided the Prichard water board headquarters and other utility building in February. Morgan said he was there for raid and looked for items that Bradley had charged.

“And I’m not seeing them in their building,” he said.

Later, the District Attorney’s Office got a warrant to search Bradley’s home and found every room packed with items that correspond to the credit card purchases. Those include boxes and boxes of unopened shoes, Louis Vuitton handbags, high-end clothing and other luxury goods. There also were multiple television sets, expensive vacuum cleaners, Yeti coolers and cups, as well as other household items.

“Every room had items in it,” he said, adding that that included even the attic, which was packed with Louis Vuitton products.

Morgan pegged the value of just the household items at $11,800. He testified that Bradley may have charged almost $1 million on the credit card and that the fraudulent amount is $235,318. He said Bradley’s credit card use accelerated toward the end of her tenure.

“It exploded to the point where she spent almost $100,000 a month on her credit card,” he said.

At the same time, Morgan testified, many items were unaccounted for during the raid of the Bradley home. Those include ceiling fans, roof materials, siding, flooring, house windows, large amounts of paint and other building supplies, Morgan testified. He said Bradley owns 14 rental houses, in her name alone, with a partner or as part of a company she set up. He said a visual inspection of some of those houses indicate the same type of windows and siding contained in the credit card records.

Nia Bradley’s attorney, Jason Darley, disputed the allegations. Outside the courtroom, he flatly denied that his client concealed the credit card purchases from the board. He also disputed the contention that his client owns 14 properties.

Darley also repeated his longstanding contention that the board allowed Bradley to make some personal purchases on the credit cards as part of her compensation.

“We believe that they were authorized. … There’s a paperwork trail,” he said.

During the hearing, Darley pressed Morgan about other employees who had access to Bradley’s credit card. The investigator acknowledged that others may have used the card but that he could not quantify it. That’s important because prosecutors must prove that ill-gotten gains from the purchases exceeded $200,000 to get a conviction on the most serious charge, aggravated theft by deception, which carries a penalty of 10 years to life in prison.

The case against Anthony Bradley revolves around whether he knew or should have known that the items his wife purchased were theft. Morgan testified that the number of items in the house was “extraordinarily unusual for a household” and that Anthony Bradley should have known something was not right.

“After seeing the sheer volume of stuff at the house, we made the determination that there was no way he could not have realized they could not afford those times on their income,” he testified.

Defense attorney Gordon Armstrong asked Morgan why agents seized personal times, such as a china set that was a gift from his mother 25 years ago, his high school diploma, a Shriners certificate – even a piece of medical equipment he needs for his heart condition. Morgan said some of those items likely were seized in error but said one of the credit card purchases was a blood glucose monitoring system.

Armstrong said outside the courtroom that his client has been charged only with receiving $11,800 in items that would be used by the entire household, not the women’s clothing and handbags that lined the room. He said prosecutors are trying to have it both ways.

“You’re trying to make him responsible for something somebody else did without charging him with that,” he said. “That’s the same thing. You’re charging them but not charging them, if you’re wanting them to be accountable for it. And so, that’s just not fair.”

Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi said that the investigation is ongoing and that others may be charged.

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