Investigation into Augusta fire leaders continues despite retirements

The investigation into an unauthorized side business managed by Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department Battalion Chief Tommy Willis is ongoing, despite Willis’ agreement to retire, according to Deputy City Admin­istrator Bill Shan­ahan.

Shanahan launched an investigation Oct. 6 into 1-800-BoardUp, a company that secures homes after they are damaged by fire, in light of allegations Willis was using his position with the city to solicit customers and promote the business he manages.

Fire Chief Howard Willis announced Monday his intention to retire at the end of his medical leave. His two deputy chiefs, Mike Rogers and Carl Scott, along with his brother Tommy Willis, announced Tuesday that they also would retire.

The investigation was supposed to be completed Wednesday, but Shan­a­han said he asked Acting Chief Chris James to review the findings after James took charge of the department Tuesday.

“(James) is going to identify things that were done wrong, and he’s going to make recommendations to make sure it never happens again,” Shanahan said. “But the most important thing to me on this is to use this as a learning tool. We have to figure out exactly what happened and why it hap­pened that way, and what we need to improve to make sure it never happens again.”

With Tommy Willis’ retirement taking effect Nov. 1, Shanahan said the city cannot enforce any discipline even if the investigation shows Willis violated fire department and city policies. If he finds Willis did anything illegal, Shanahan said, he will refer to the city’s legal department for advice.

Willis’ pension and retirement benefits will not be affected, Shanahan said.

Although he would not comment on any findings, Shanahan said other members of the fire department have been investigated.

The focus of the probe is that firefighters called 1-800-BoardUp to the scene of fires on at least seven occasions this year in violation of city policy concerning unfair competitive practices. Willis never received the required permission from his supervisor, Howard Willis, since he started managing the company in 2007. Bowles Construction owns the Augusta 1-800-BoardUp franchise and employs Willis and four other firefighters.

State Fire Marshal Dwayne Garriss said homeowners are responsible for calling their insurance company after a fire and asking for a list of companies that can secure the home’s windows and doors to prevent further damage. If a homeowner doesn’t have insurance, a fire department employee can identify services in the area but is not supposed to advocate for a specific company, Garriss said.

“For (a firefighter) to be calling specifically for that company … that sounds like an ethics issue,” Garriss said. “It sounds like it’s a little outside the bounds. The fire service is out there to help the public. It’s not to force things on the public, and it’s not there to insist you use a specific company.”

THE BACK STORY

AUGUSTA-RICHMOND COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT

BACKGROUND: Having come under fire recently as several questionable practices came to light, Fire Chief Howard Willis announced his retirement Monday. One of the issues that became public involved his brother, Battalion Chief Tommy Willis.

DEVELOPMENTS:

• On Oct. 6, Tommy Willis was placed on paid administrative leave while the city investigates whether he used city time and materials to steer business toward 1-800-BoardUp, a company he manages that secures homes after they’ve been damaged by fire.

• On Tuesday, two chief deputies, Mike Rogers and Carl Scott, and Tommy Willis said they’ll retire. Chris James became acting chief.

• On Wednesday, Deputy City Administrator Bill Shanahan said investigations will continue. “We have to figure out exactly what happened and why it hap­pened that way, and what we need to improve to make sure it never happens again,” he said.

– From staff reports

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