Augusta Fire Department Battalion Chief Tommy Willis was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday while the city investigates allegations he is using his position to promote a personal business on the side.
Willis, the brother of Fire Chief Howard Willis, has run 1-800 Board Up since 2007 without receiving the required authorization from the fire department. The company secures homes by boarding windows and doors after they are damaged in a fire.
Acting Fire Chief Mike Rogers and Deputy City Administrator Bill Shanahan are also looking into allegations Tommy Willis is using his fire department position to distribute advertising materials and gain access to more customers.
Shanahan said Willis has his city e-mail address on his Board Up business cards and part of the investigation is to determine whether Willis is using city computers to work on his personal business.
“That’s against our policy,” Shanahan said. “It’s a conflict of interest using taxpayer money to earn money.”
Rogers said he began questioning Willis about the business after an Oct. 2 story in The Augusta Chronicle revealed the battalion chief had broken the policy. He said he decided to put Willis on leave Thursday until the investigation is complete.
“I didn’t want him on a fire scene making decisions when he had all this extra pressure on him now,” Rogers said. “We placed (Willis) on leave … basically for his good and for the good of the organization.”
The Chronicle initially identified in its Sunday article a Jan. 18 incident in which a fire department investigator broke the conflict-of-interest policy by calling Board Up to the scene of a fire for a homeowner.
Rogers said the incident was isolated, but The Chronicle, through an open records request, found five more instances in which firefighters called Board Up to fire scenes.
“When that incident came up, I said that was an isolated incident because at the time I thought it was,” Rogers said Thursday. “It was not an attempt to cover anything up. That was all the information available to me at the time.”
Rogers said employees are not permitted to promote any one business to the public, and that it is department policy for homeowners to call board-up or restoration companies on their own.
According to a Sept. 11 fire investigation report, Battalion Chief James Freeman called Board Up after a fire damaged a Crawford Avenue house.
Freeman also called Board Up while working as chief March 4, when most of a house was engulfed after a bathroom drape caught fire from a candle.
“901 called Board Up,” Lt. Troy Milam wrote in the investigation report, referring to Freeman by his unit number.
When the house that Sandra Burley rented caught fire in April, she said firefighters approached her about a business that could come to secure the home. Without mentioning other similar businesses in the area, firefighters called 1-800 Board Up to the scene for her.
“It was like, ‘We have somebody that can come board it up,’” Burley recalled.
Homeowner Joann Latimore said 1-800 Board Up showed up without her calling when her house caught fire Sept. 13. In the investigative report, Capt. Jeffrey Daniel wrote that “1-800 Board Up was called to secure the scene,” without stating who called the company.
“They came and were there and asked if it was all right for them to board up my house,” Latimore said. “I just thought that was the proper process.”
Soon after, Latimore received a $384 bill for 1-800 Board Up’s work of boarding two doors and three windows, which her insurance company covered.
On Thursday, Daniel said he could not recall who called 1-800 Board Up to the scene. Daniel said he called 911 dispatch and said, “I need somebody out here to secure the house, and Board Up is who showed up.”
However, a 911 dispatch supervisor said the dispatch center does not have a list of local boarding service competitors, adding that the only request the center receives for such companies is for 1-800 Board Up.
Mark Hutchison, the owner of Paul Davis Restoration of Augusta, said he hasn’t received the same calls from the fire department for work as 1-800 Board Up since 2007.
Although Board Up advertising material was posted around Fire Station No. 13 this month, there were no materials for competitors such as Paul Davis, First General Services of CSRA or MRC Construction.
Rogers said it could take two or three days to complete the investigation into Board Up’s relationship with the fire department. He said that since the investigation began, all fire stations have been asked to remove 1-800 Board Up advertising materials, such as coffee mugs, calendars, note pads and business cards.
“There’s no soliciting going on anymore in the department,” Rogers said. “We’ve changed, and we told our people and made them aware. We’re not going to be a free advertisement for anybody else.”
Shanahan said that until the investigation is complete, he can’t speculate on how Willis will be reprimanded. He said punishment for breaking policy could range from a letter of reprimand to termination.
On Thursday, Augusta Commissioner J.R. Hatney said abusing a government position is something that will not be tolerated and that the commission has voted to fire employees in the past for conflicts of interest.
“You’ve got to set a precedent,” Hatney said. “You’ve got to be consistent with it. (Administration) dismissed some employees for stealing time before, and you’re not supposed to use government property for your own gain. I just want them to be consistent.”