Originally created 06/08/01

North Augusta suspends chief



NORTH AUGUSTA - The head of North Augusta's police and fire department has been taken off the job without pay, and the city official who suspended him isn't saying why.

Chief T. Lee Wetherington, director of North Augusta Department of Public Safety, said he wants to face the person who accused him of three policy infractions but can't. The allegations came from an anonymous letter, he said.

That wouldn't suffice in a warrant application, the standard he uses to discipline his own officers, the chief said. But City Administrator Charles Martin, who placed the chief on leave, is following city policy.

"That would be like me calling your (boss) and not telling them who I am, and accusing you of something," Chief Wetherington said. "Is he going to listen to me?"

Of the three things the letter accused him of, Chief Wetherington said, one of them is true but he doesn't see it as a procedural problem. He did use his city vehicle - which he drives off duty because he is on call - to pick up azaleas on his way home from work, he said.

The other charges - telling a lie during a department meeting and making a false worker's compensation claim after falling off a fire truck - are baseless, the chief said.

Mr. Martin would not comment on the allegations, nor would he explain how a city employee can be suspended without pay based on an anonymous complaint.

He would say only that the allegations being investigated involve personnel procedure violations.

"Beyond that, we would not want to comment," Mr. Martin said.

Capt. Charles Williams will take over director's duties during Chief Wetherington's absence. The length of the suspension is indefinite, pending the outcome of the city's investigation, Mr. Martin said.

The city named Chief Wetherington director in 1997. He has 29 years of experience with the department, which handles police and fire protection and some code enforcement.

Mr. Martin enforces policy, allowing him to suspend department heads. Mayor Lark Jones said only he can hire and fire them.

Policy forbids the mayor from talking about the matter but he did say it likely will be resolved quickly.

The chief speculated Thursday that somebody who works for him has a beef.

"I have to discipline people all the time," Chief Wetherington said. "I hold people's feet to the fire on things. I make them do what they're supposed to be doing."

Weathering a storm of media calls to his home Thursday evening, he said he wondered whether the story will gain as much attention if he is cleared. If that happens, he said, he will be given back pay.

"It's a mountain out of a molehill," he said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.