Investigation into Augusta fire leaders continues despite retirements

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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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Riverman1
87474
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Riverman1 10/13/11 - 04:46 am
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0
I've been a supporter of Fred

I've been a supporter of Fred Russell in the past as everyone knows, but if we are going to start looking into side businesses on county time, emails and so on, can Bill Shanahan look into his boss, Russell's past business activity, too, while he's at it?

Dipshot
-5
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Dipshot 10/13/11 - 05:37 am
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Does Augusta have an ethics

Does Augusta have an ethics ordinance for elected officials and employees?

Riverman1
87474
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Riverman1 10/13/11 - 06:00 am
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Dipshot, there is no ethics

Dipshot, there is no ethics ordinance and the only folks interested in such a subject are found right here in the comments section of the Chronicle.

waterman1
4
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waterman1 10/13/11 - 07:37 am
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How many of us would know

How many of us would know whom to call if an invasive fire ravaged our property? As a homeowner, I would look to the Fire Department for guidance. So who was actually hurt here? Property was secured promptly. If the owners of these other board up companies had been so concerned, why did they not take action themselves? The Chronicle is too busy patting themselves on the back for exposing “corruption” that they seem to have overlooked logic.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 07:53 am
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Augusta cannot legislate

Augusta cannot legislate ethics, Dipshot. The corruption is too endemic.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 08:01 am
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The nepotism is so ingrained

The nepotism is so ingrained within Augusta government that no one even thinks it is bad. Tommy Willis was directly supervised by his brother. Most large governments and large corporations have policies that prevent supervision by close family members. Not Augusta.

Also, most governments have policies that employees do not have side businesses that benefit from government actions. Fred Russell's bicycle lane business benefitted from his bringing the iron man triathalons and the "Ride Georgia" and numerous other bicycling events to the city. Of course Russell will deny he did anything to bring such events to the city because, as everyone knows, he never does anything — least of all worry.

GodisSoGood
967
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GodisSoGood 10/13/11 - 09:05 am
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Little Lamb....the HR

Little Lamb....the HR department is also involved in any disciplinary action that occurs. If there had been favoritism shown to his brother, it would have come out long before now. As for the nepotism....they were on different departments for years when the departments merged, putting them on the same department.
I still fail to see how calling Board Up on a scene is any different than calling any other contractor to board up a home.
I also fail to see how Masters was able to violate company policy without being reprimanded. He violated policy by not seeking prior approval before speaking with the media. Why is he not being called out for breaking policy? His antics are just as detrimental to the fire department as the issue with Board Up.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 08:17 am
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I don't really understand

I don't really understand this post from GodisSoGood:

I also fail to see how Masters violated company policy by going to the media without prior approval....why wasn't he reprimanded for breaking policy?

I guess we first have to assume that when he says “company policy” he actually means “fire department policy.” Then we have to discover whether the fire department actually has a policy that employees must ask for and receive department approval before going on a radio talk show to talk about work conditions in their department. It is a sticky issue, and many government agencies and private businesses have such a policy.

If the Augusta Fire Department has such a policy (i.e., employees must ask for and receive approval before talking to the news media), then GodisSoGood's statement, “I fail to see how Masters violated” the policy makes no sense. If the policy exists, then Masters definitely violated the policy when he went on the Austin Rhodes Radio Program and talked about the fire department.

Now as far as disciplinary action goes, I'm sure the Fire Department policy allows discretion in whether discipline is administered and how severe it is. If a person goes to the media without permission and says his boss and co-workers are great and conditions are peachy, then no discipline would be administered. He might get a day off with pay.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 08:25 am
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I think it is proper for

I think it is proper for employers (private or government) to have policies limiting what employees say to news media. However, let us remember that after Masters spoke on the Austin Rhodes Radio Program, he said essentially the same things to the Augusta Commission. Let us hope that the Fire Department does not have a policy limiting what an employee says to his government. People have the right to petition their government (be it local, state or federal) about perceived grievances and to seek redress.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 08:31 am
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GodisSoGood posted: I still

GodisSoGood posted:

I still fail to see how calling Board Up on a scene is any different than calling any other contractor to board up a home.

The article above says that firefighters called Board Up to the scenes of at least seven fires this year. The firefighters should not do the calling. It is the property owner's responsibility.

waterman1
4
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waterman1 10/13/11 - 08:54 am
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Would the average homeowner

Would the average homeowner know whom to call – especially after such a traumatic event? I would appreciate guidance. Should multiple companies be suggested – sure … but what’s the point if these other companies never show up?

STSneeze
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STSneeze 10/13/11 - 08:59 am
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Bully you have a VERY valid

Bully you have a VERY valid point....hummm, what if you are not home or out of town and cannot be contacted? What happens then? How is the house secure? Since it is up to the homeowner to have their house secured, what is going to happen? Tracey McManus, that is the real story! How many houses that catch fire will be left open? Robbed? Vandalized?
Oh, and the owners of the other board up companies...Tracey, find out what their response times are....when they come out...and if the house is secured when the fire department leaves (because they cannot stay there if the fire is out and there is another fire to go to....)

GodisSoGood
967
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GodisSoGood 10/13/11 - 09:03 am
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What I meant in my posting

What I meant in my posting was that Masters violated policy by not seeking approval....and the question is why was he not reprimanded for breaking the policy?

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 09:17 am
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I see you fixed your earlier

I see you fixed your earlier post, GodisSoGood. You are asking a good question. Masters went on a talk radio program and criticised supervision in his department and criticised working conditions in his department without getting prior approval from his supervision. That likely is a violation of fire department policy. The policy likely provides that discipline is available for said violation. The Augusta government is so corrupt that discipline is selectively administered. It is not consistent. The lack of consistency, the croneyism, the nepotism, the stealing of materials and time, the time wasting. Those are the hallmarks of Augusta government. Oh, also the lack of caring about the taxpayer. That is the root of Augusta's cancer.

Bat57
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Bat57 10/13/11 - 09:49 am
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How do most businesses start?

How do most businesses start? Is it not by someone who has an idea while doing their job. Besides Board -Up who does secure a house after a fire without disturbing evidence and making sure the house is safe during all hours of the night?
I find it interesting that someone that can make such ourtrageous comments about a 30plus year fireman and has no idea what he or she is talking about. I do not know forced retired Chief Tommy Willis or the policies of that department. But I do know the feeling of security his company has given to the burned out victims in other counties. The professionalism and patience they exude is amazing to say the least. I hope the "Reporter" who wrote this and other stories on this never has their house on fire and there is no one there to secure their belongings after the fire dept. is gone. I hope he/she doesn't have to feel everything of value to them is not lost due to someones rash and inaccurate comments about a company there who actually are there without question there to protect their valuables. All I can say is "WOW", how irresponsible is this?...

Willow Bailey
20603
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Willow Bailey 10/13/11 - 10:35 am
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LL, another good post; you

LL, another good post; you just keep them coming. It is very difficult to discipline when the disciplinarian is misbehaving. Where would these people even start? Oh, yeah, with Chief Willis and his brother. This should be a defining moment for others to heed the call of minding them quickly least they peak into your closet while theirs overflows. Can we say hypocrisy?

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 10:41 am
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This 1-800BOARDUP is a

This 1-800BOARDUP is a national company with local franchises. If you go to 1-800BOARDUP's web site, you can navigate to a "firefighters" page. There you will find this text:

Thankfully, firefighters are often the first to provide care for fire victims at the fire scene. Eventually though, even firefighters must leave the victim to make decisions that could ultimately mean the difference between a smooth recovery…or a drawn-out catastrophe! Fortunately, this also puts you in the best position to be able to help the fire victim determine whether they will face the threat of further property damage, financial liability & the swarm of fire-scene solicitors, or get the trusted service known by firefighters around the nation with 1-800-BOARDUP. Just call us at 1-800-262-7387, and we'll be there in one hour!

So you see that this national company is soliciting business from firefighters all around the country. They are marketing themselves to firefighters directly. They are suggesting to the firefighters that the firefighters call 1-800BOARDUP on behalf of the victims. It seems innocent enough, but it gets the city government into the messy arena of stifling competition. It's the government picking business winners and losers again. Obama is the master of it, but Willis and the firefighters working under him were learning fast.

GodisSoGood
967
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GodisSoGood 10/13/11 - 10:49 am
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Those who truly know Chief

Those who truly know Chief Willis know he has done no wrong. Those who assume things based on what the media reports are just foolish. I'm happy for Chief Willis that he is DONE with Augusta's "government", if it can even be called that.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 10:52 am
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If you go to the web site for

If you go to the web site for Bowles Construction company here in Augusta and navigate to the "associations" page, you will see that Bowles Construction is associated with 1-800BOARDUP. I have not gone to other Augusta remodeling companies to see if there are others in Augusta who are likewise associated with 1-800BOARDUP, but it would make sense that there might be more than one.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 10:56 am
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0
Well, remember this,

Well, remember this, GodisSoGood; you said yourself that firefighter Masters violated fire department policy by criticising his supervision on the Austin Rhodes Radio Program. And you said that firefighter Masters received no discipline for violating said policy. That failure to discipline by Chief Willis was wrong. However, I do not hold Chief Willis to a standard of perfection. I have done many things wrong in my life. We all have.

burnout
0
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burnout 10/13/11 - 11:21 am
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How are wreckers handled? if

How are wreckers handled? if the owners requests a company the police dispatch that company. If the owner is not able to communicate or does not then know someone there is a list of wreckers on a rotation who are dispatched. The companies on the rotation are not allowed to monitor scanners and respond without a call from the police dept. If you think for one second any of the other companies do not have the ability to respond in the exact same manner (within 1 hour) then you are severely misinformed or spreading disinformation on purpose. As for your prior statements about "other companies not showing up" you are spreading mistruths or misinformed as well. I know for a fact it was not till last Wednesday when 911 dispatch called all 3 companies listed in the original article to get the contact and emergency #'s, so how were these other companies dispatched prior to last Wednesday if 911 dispatch did not even have their numbers? This is a deceitful marketing ploy 800 board up franchisees utilizes to discredit their competitors. Here is how you do it, most construction companies do not have live answering services, they simply have a message machine. So all you do is call the competitor after hours out of the blue without that company doing any prior solicitation for emergency work to the fire dept. and leave a message on their answering machine after hours requesting an immediate board up. Well, you KNOW they will not get the message till the next business day so then you can say "they never showed up". This is devious, unethical behavior and it will all come out in the investigation. If as a fireman if you a so concerned about securing the home just do the board up while you are there and ON DUTY. That is unless you need to pad your pockets by doing something “off duty” you could just as easily do “on duty”, just like the fire dept. did before 800 board up existed. You want people to believe this is a “community service”, it is not, it designed to allow the parent contractor to HIDE behind the 800 board up moniker and get the inside track to the BIG MONEY, read the benefits of 800 board up from their own site. If this were commodities or stocks it would amount to insider trading.

http://www.1-800boardup.com/means_to_you.html

“We provide you autonomy and the freedom to settle claims at their fair market value.”

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 11:28 am
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There could be a good reason

There could be a good reason Chief Willis did not discipline Mr. Masters. Perhaps Chief Willis really believes in the ideals of free speech and freedom of expression. Even though the speech was critical of Willis, he used his discretion not to discipline. I salute Willis for such a stand.

jennyrviera
2
Points
jennyrviera 10/13/11 - 12:15 pm
0
0
If you read the previous

If you read the previous articles when all of this first came about, you will notcie that it mentions 2 or 3 different companies that "board" up and secure homes after a fire. One company stated that after 1-800 BOARD UP started their business declined drastically. It was said that if the home owner does not have insurance that there is a call list like there is for tow trucks, but if you have "people" speaking in your ear, the last thing you are listening for is "who is next on the list". Personally they are hitting them at vulernable times, when in fact they should be directing them with compassion. 1st phone call should be to the Red Cross, and then let the Red Cross assist them with everything else, i.e. calling insurance company, and if no insurance then giving them a list of companies that secure homes after a fire and let the home owner decided who to call.

STSneeze
0
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STSneeze 10/13/11 - 12:41 pm
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Little Lamb and Godissogood:

Little Lamb and Godissogood: Have you read the NEW policy for discipline for "violation of policies"? It is one and done. One write up and the next one-you are fired. How is that "thanks" to the men and women who have served the county for 10, 20, 30, 40 years of service? They loose everything-retirement, etc. Is it any wonder that Mr. Willis retired? Just imagine how all county employees feel with this kind of policy!

big city 13
0
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big city 13 10/13/11 - 12:42 pm
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Fire departments can and

Fire departments can and should screen companies to provide a resource list to their victims. Insurance companies support this policy. If a company is prepared to respond and assist a any victim even if they don't have insurance is a great customer service. I agree that there might be issues if someone works for both the Department and a builder. Almost every Fire Fighter has to work some where part time to make ends meet. Does that mean we can't allow the Department to use that business because a Fire Fighter works there. This case in Augusta should never had happen. A chief Officer should have removed him or herself from any actions with their employer.

PR
0
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PR 10/13/11 - 12:49 pm
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Glad to see that AFD is
Unpublished

Glad to see that AFD is getting rid of some of the good ol' boys. Now they need to bring is some professional leaders. Fred Russell needs to go too. He runs Dis-gusta government likes its his own little kingdom and answers to know. The council is scared of him and refuses to reprimand him for his mismangement. Dis-gusta continues to be run by a ship of fools.

Little Lamb
47220
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Little Lamb 10/13/11 - 01:23 pm
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Riverman wrote: I've been a

Riverman wrote:

I've been a supporter of Fred Russell in the past as everyone knows, but if we are going to start looking into side businesses on county time, emails and so on, can Bill Shanahan look into his boss, Russell's past business activity, too, while he's at it?

PR wrote:

Fred Russell needs to go too. He runs Dis-gusta government likes its his own little kingdom and answers to no one. The council is scared of him and refuses to reprimand him for his mismangement. Dis-gusta continues to be run by a ship of fools.

Therein lies the rub. It is hard to investigate the man at the top. Everybody in city government works for him, so they can't honestly investigate. The Commission is too dysfunctional to investigate. They could empanel a special grand jury to investigate Russell, but look what happened several years ago when they did just that with Fire Chief Ronnie Few. The Special Grand Jury's report was blistering and damning, but no prosecutor could be found to draw up indictment paperwork. It would be the same with Russell. Russell cannot be shamed into resigning because he has no shame — he doesn't worry.

They only thing I see that might change things is the 2012 commission elections. Perhaps with new blood there might be six votes to fire.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Too bad PR's post doesn't show up here. You have to go to the "Discussion" page to read it.

GodisSoGood
967
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GodisSoGood 10/13/11 - 01:24 pm
0
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The commissioners seem to

The commissioners seem to have a lot of control over the actions that Chief Willis can and can't do with the fire dept. from enforcing discipline, to bugdet spending, etc. I'm sure the list goes on and on. Citizens don't seem to understand how closely tied the commissioners are to the fire service.

Sweet son
10778
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Sweet son 10/13/11 - 01:33 pm
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Once again thanks to Chiefs

Once again thanks to Chiefs Willis, Willis, Rogers and Scott for their service to our community. Only history will tell how the James, Masters and who knows elses legacy will play out!!! Hope they manage our fire department better than Ronnie Few! We'll see!!!

SAPCS
35
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SAPCS 10/13/11 - 03:04 pm
0
0
I don't necessarily think the

I don't necessarily think the issue is that the fire department is recommending a particular company to perform this service. The issue is that there are high-ranking members of the fire department working for the company that was recommended by fire fighters to perform this service. This would be a lot like a sheriff's deputy recommending a contracting company owned by the sheriff to do crime scene clean-up. It reeks of nepotism.

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