Originally created 08/10/00

Banquet prompts inquiry



The Richmond County special grand jury is investigating the Augusta Fire Department's media awards bank records, Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig said.

Mr. Craig acknowledged Wednesday that the special grand jury investigating alleged city government corruption has the records The Augusta Chronicle has been seeking through freedom of information requests since last week.

The newspaper requested the records after examining the bank records of another fire department account - the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs - which showed a $4,000 check had been written on that account to the media awards account.

The Augusta Fire Department held the Media Phoenix Awards banquet April 13 at Sacred Heart Cultural Center. The lavish affair included steak and lobster dinners, and cut-glass Phoenix awards were given to local media members for coverage of fire-related issues.

When the department held the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs Conference this year from May 30 to June 4, it ended up in the red by about $23,000.

The association stepped in Friday to pay the $3,000 balance of an overdue bill from Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta to avoid more publicity over debts left from the conference, said association president Alberto C. "Butch" Zaragoza Jr., chief of Vestavia Hills Alabama Fire Department.

The association will pay half of any bills once it receives an accounting from Augusta. City fire administration officials say they have been trying to piece together conference financial records, but former Augusta fire Chief Ronnie Few now works in Washington, and the man who signed most of the checks, firefighter Octavius Davis, has been away on military leave. He is expected back Friday.

"I'm still looking for things and trying to find things myself," Deputy Chief Mike Rogers said.

Mr. Davis' signature is on the $4,000 check written on the conference account to the media account.

Capt. Thomas Cox, who also was authorized to write checks on both accounts, said Wednesday that Katrice Bryant, the department spokeswoman, asked him to write the check, but he did not.

"I didn't have the checkbook to write the check, but if I had, I don't think I would have," Capt. Cox said. "I just didn't feel like it was the proper thing to do."

Capt. Cox said Ms. Bryant did not tell him the purpose for the check, and he didn't ask.

"I didn't ask why because I knew I wasn't going to write it," he said. "I thought the less I know about it, the better off I'll be. And the information wasn't volunteered. I just assumed there wasn't enough money collected to cover the expenses of that awards banquet. I don't know whether that's true or not."

Capt. Cox said he thought he was doing Chief Few a favor by agreeing to sign checks on accounts.

"I worked in the office every day from eight to five, and I really thought I would be doing him a favor by signing the checks, but I see now where it's turned into a major fiasco, and I wish I had never got involved in the doggone thing," he said. "But I didn't do anything illegal or unethical. I mean what few checks I signed were all up front, I hope."

Ms. Bryant denied asking Capt. Cox to sign the check.

"That is not true," she said. "I haven't asked anyone to do anything. Anything that has been said or done is a directive, and I don't give directives."

Ms. Bryant said the proper people will straighten everything out.

"There is a justification and reason for everything, and all the money that was supposed to be there is there," she said. "I'm not going to discuss it in the newspaper because that is a subject that is being investigated."

Meanwhile, Capt. Cox, a 28-year veteran of the fire department, said he has never been involved in anything like the current investigation of the department.

"I didn't think I'd ever see the fire department in the shape it's in now," he said. "But that's what the politicians want, I guess."

The special Richmond County grand jury was empaneled in January after two regular grand juries looked into city government, found suspected corruption, waste and political favoritism and recommended further investigation.

Chief Few was subpoenaed to appear before the special grand jury several times and to provide fire-department records.

Staff Writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this article.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.