Fully involved

Firefighter's side business appears to thrive at an unethical advantage

Note to Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

The department is only now investigating Battalion Chief Tommy Willis for running a side business and apparently using the department as a referral agency to steer fire victims to it since at least January.

Members of the fire department were actually referring fire victims to Willis’ “1-800-Board Up” – which, for a fee, secures damaged homes – without telling the shell-shocked property owners that there are other businesses in town that provide such a service.

In short, it appears Willis used his lofty city position to get his side business in the front door at fire scenes. And he had help doing it; not only were other officials in the department referring victims to Willis’ business, but promotional materials for the enterprise – mugs, calendars, note pads and business cards – were said to be all over area fire stations.

Hello? Didn’t someone with a trained nose smell smoke?

Nope. Only after The Chronicle chronicled the scheme earlier this month did the department start investigating and put Willis – the fire chief’s brother – on paid leave. Moreover, acting chief Mike Rogers initially claimed a January incident, in which a fire department investigator called Board Up to a fire scene, was isolated. It didn’t take much of a nose for The Chronicle to sniff out a handful of other times when the department called Willis’ business to a scene.

Guess that fire wasn’t out after all!

The arrangement is about as unethical and reprehensible as you can imagine. It shamelessly takes advantage of stressed and traumatized property owners, while using a tax-paid position to gain a near-exclusive advantage over competitors. Willis even had his city-issued e-mail address on his Board Up business cards.

To put it in perspective, it’s as if a police department were routing burglary victims to one of their buddies’ locksmith companies, or steering criminals to the deputy chief’s bail bond business.

They have a word for that in non-Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department circles. It’s called “corruption.”

It’s not only patently unethical and against the city’s conflict-of-interest rules, but it ought to be illegal if it isn’t already. Worse, it tars and embarrasses an already beleaguered fire department reeling from morale problems and a slow-burning mutiny against Chief Howard Willis and other top officials that has included a union call for their resignation.

It may get even hotter if the chief’s brother isn’t shown the door – and ethics doesn’t somehow get slipped into the training schedule.

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