Originally created 09/21/00

Agents confiscate fire records



The probe of Augusta's government heated up Wednesday as Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents seized records concerning the city's fire department.

Wednesday's search was the first sign that the ongoing special grand jury examination of the city government has turned the bend from looking into allegations of mismanagement and waste to an investigation of possible criminal acts.

Information provided by the Richmond County special grand jury established probable cause to believe that certain crimes had been committed by an employee, or employees, of the Richmond County Fire Department, District Attorney Danny Craig wrote in a press release Wednesday.

That grand jury also wants a comprehensive audit of the fire department and corresponding purchasing department records.

Sources told The Augusta Chronicle on Wednesday that the GBI investigation at this point centers solely on the fire department. One source said the GBI's focus is on the three years former Chief Ronnie Few oversaw the department, composed of 325 employees and 19 engine companies, and its budget of more than $13 million.

Chief Few announced in June that he was leaving Augusta to accept the position as chief of the Washington fire department. He started that job as acting chief July 10 and is scheduled to go before a five-member subcommittee of the Washington City Council for a confirmation hearing Wednesday. The subcommittee is to make a recommendation later to the full city council.

Telephone calls to Chief Few were not returned Wednesday.

Since its formation last November, the special grand jury has taken an interest in the city's fire department. The special grand jury was appointed after two prior, regular-session grand juries voiced suspicions that Augusta government is plagued by waste, mismanagement and possible corruption.

While the first interim report by the special grand jury Aug. 31 cleared lurking suspicions about how the city contracted with the private company now operating the sewage treatment plants, nothing has come forth concerning the questions raised earlier about the fire department operations.

On Tuesday, Mr. Craig set up a meeting with Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver, Acting Fire Chief Carl Scott, Finance Director Lon Morrey and Purchasing Director Geri Sams for 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, Mr. Oliver said.

At the meeting, Mr. Craig informed the department heads that when they returned to their offices they would find GBI agents there to collect documents and computer data concerning possible criminal activity in the fire department, Mr. Oliver said.

"We are cooperating fully with what they ask for ... all records pertaining to the fire department," Mr. Morrey said. "Anything that we've got, they were interested in looking at."

Sources reported GBI agents from the local Thomson office and elsewhere now are involved in the investigation. One city official estimated that about 16 agents were involved in Wednesday's records search.

Last September, a regular Richmond County grand jury issued a scathing report on city government and called for a "citizens alert." That and calls from city leaders led Chief Superior Court Judge William M. Fleming Jr. to empanel a special grand jury composed of 23 Richmond County residents.

Unlike a regular grand jury, the special grand jury is not subject to a time limit, which two regular grand juries complained was one reason they could not get to the bottom of concerns about the city government.

Among the concerns cited by grand juries last fall were suspicions about:

Performance raises at the fire department favoring higher level administrative staff and officials;

Fire department bid specifications that mirrored specifications submitted by a particular bidder who won two bids;

A company owned by a firefighter that was awarded a $23,945 bid to provide equipment for Bush Field.

The Augusta Chronicle learned the special grand jury became frustrated with Chief Few this summer when subpoenaed documents about locally hosted events weren't forthcoming.

In June after a subsequent appearance before the grand jury, Chief Few said he was asked to bring documents relating to conferences the department has held since he began overseeing the department in January 1997.

The Chronicle first reported last month that the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs Conference account was short by $23,068 after the event was held in Augusta this year. That deficit is still showing as red ink, Alberto C. "Butch" Zaragoza Jr., association president, said Wednesday.

The Chronicle also revealed the city administrator's efforts to get Chief Few and the fire department's public information officer, Katrice Bryant, to repay hundreds of dollars for personal calls made on the city-issued cellular telephones.

Ms. Bryant resigned from her job earlier this month. She had been hired by Chief Few in the fall of 1997.

Wednesday, GBI agents met with full cooperation at the city departments and were seen leaving with stacks of papers and computer discs.

"We have nothing to hide, and our records are open to anybody, with or without a subpoena," Mayor Bob Young said Wednesday. "We welcome the GBI, the FBI, the AFL-CIO - anybody who wants to look at our records, please come, because we have nothing to hide.

"And certainly if there has been any improper activity or illegal activity, I'm sure that will be dealt with swiftly in the proper forum," Mr. Young said.

The search warrant documents remained sealed Wednesday, Mr. Craig said. The warrants authorized the seizure of records and documents committed to paper and computers at the fire, purchasing, finance and information technology departments.

A search warrant cannot be executed unless a judge is persuaded an officer has reason to believe a crime has been committed and that evidence of that crime can be found by searching a specific location.

Mr. Craig said Wednesday the GBI will not report back to the special grand jury.

While Mr. Craig declined comment, the GBI only investigates at a prosecutor's request, and the results of such an investigation are turned over to the prosecutor.

There have been no arrests or indictments, Mr. Craig said. If either the special grand jury or the regular grand jury determines as a result of the current investigation that probable cause exists to believe a crime has occurred, either body can issue indictments, he said.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228and Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.