Originally created 09/22/00

Officials seize all records



If a scrap of fire department document remains behind, it won't be because the Georgia Bureau of Investigation lacked authorization to seize it.

According to the search warrant executed by a crew of GBI agents throughout the day Wednesday, the agents had the right to seize virtually every financial, policy, personnel, phone and inventory record generated at, by or for the Augusta Richmond County Fire Department.

Specifically, the agents are digging to find evidence of "theft by conversion," a felony punishable by as much as 10 years in prison, and "false statements and writings ... with matters within the jurisdiction of state and political subdivisions," a felony punishable by as much as five years.

According to Georgia laws on theft by conversion, a government employee who has been entrusted with the money or property of another is presumed to have taken it for his own if he refuses a lawful demand for payment.

The search warrant executed Wednesday called for the seizure of:

"All records of all financial transactions of any kind and description ...

"All records in any way relating to the conduct of events known as `Media Awards' ...

"All communications ...

"All records, files and data of any kind ... conducted by former or current employees including, but not limited to, records of all purchases, sales ... of equipment, supplies, furniture, fixtures, vehicles ...

"All inventory and identifying data of all uniforms, equipment, vehicles, furniture ...

"All records of any type concerning design, specifications, bids, purchase orders, change orders, requests for payments, requests for reimbursement ... in the name of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs ...

"All personnel records and files ...

"All policy and procedure manuals...

"All telephone records ...

"All forms and stationery ..."

"All applications ... for money, credit, grants or any other forms of money ..."

Information provided by the Richmond County special grand jury established probable cause to believe a fire department employee or employees had committed crimes, District Attorney Danny Craig announced Wednesday.

The focus of the inquiry is the three years that former Chief Ronnie Few oversaw the fire department, a source close to the investigation told The Augusta Chronicle.

The search warrant itself does not refer to a specific time period, nor does it state Chief Few's name or the name of the former public information officer at the department, Katrice Bryant.

But items sought in the search warrant already have been subjected to the grand jury's inquiry, including performance raises, bid specifications and bid awards, and the Media Awards' expenses.

In addition, the search warrant reflects two controversies brought to light by The Chronicle: the outstanding debt of $23,068 for the Southeastern Fire Chiefs Conference held in Augusta; and the city's attempts to collect hundreds of dollars from Chief Few and Ms. Bryant for personal calls made on their city-issued cellular telephones.

Ms. Bryant resigned from her job earlier this month. Efforts to serve her with a subpoena to testify before the special grand jury have been unsuccessful so far, Mr. Craig said.

Chief Few testified before the special grand jury at least twice before leaving Augusta to take the job as fire chief in the nation's capital. He became the acting chief July 10.

Chief Few is scheduled to go before the Washington City Council's five-member Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for a confirmation hearing. Three affirmative votes are needed for a recommendation that he be hired permanently. The full 13-member council will have the final say.

Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who appointed Chief Few, continues to support him, despite the latest developments in the investigation, a spokeswoman in his office said Thursday. The mayor is attending the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

The press secretary for Judiciary Committee Chairman Harold Brazil said Mr. Brazil does not know what effect the Augusta investigation will have on the proceedings.

"It's an ongoing investigation, so whatever the latest information is up until Wednesday afternoon is what he's going to have available to him," Scott Gastel said.

Judiciary Committee Member Kevin P. Chavous' press secretary, Willie Lynch, said Mr. Chavous' position is that he needs more information before denying the chief his vote.

"The council member is currently not in a position to say because he does not even know what the charges are," Mr. Lynch said. "I mean he doesn't know what they are and is not ready to denounce the man or not vote for the man, even though the GBI is involved."

According to Mr. Lynch, Mr. Chavous' real concern is the precarious position in which a possible indictment will place the district.

"But then there has to be an indictment," Mr. Lynch said. "We understand an investigation into wrongdoing ... there are two sides to this. It's extremely serious, but at this point there needs to be more than an investigation."

Besides, Mr. Lynch said, even if the council confirms the chief, it won't mean he can keep his job if the investigation shows wrongdoing that might implicate him.

Mr. Lynch said he is sure that Wednesday's hearing will be a long one and that Chief Few would have to respond to questions about the Augusta investigation.

"And it is likely there might be some other witnesses there that the committee chairman might call in to make whatever statements they can make," he said.

The other three Judiciary Committee members did not respond to The Chronicle's requests for phone interviews made through their press secretaries Thursday.

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