Originally created 06/09/01

Police chief suspension ends



NORTH AUGUSTA - Police Chief T. Lee Wetherington's suspension didn't last very long. The city reinstated him Friday after a one-day investigation into an anonymous complaint.

Thursday's suspension without pay stunned the ranks of the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, which has about 50 sworn officers who fight crime and fires. It also has raised questions about the city's policy on use of government vehicles, and how it treats employees accused of wrongdoing.

Chief Wetherington stood beside Mayor Lark Jones at a news conference, where the mayor announced an end to the investigation. He said the chief did use "poor judgment" involving personal use of a city pickup truck.

Other charges leveled at the chief were unfounded, Mr. Jones said. An unsigned letter also accused the chief of telling a lie during a department meeting and making a false worker's compensation claim after falling off a fire truck.

The mayor lamented how public officials can be easy targets for damaging allegations, and how people "assume the worst" and a "feeding frenzy begins."

Mr. Jones also said the letter was not the only basis for the chief's suspension. A contributing factor was his own admission that he used the unmarked truck for a personal errand, Chief Wetherington said. He stopped by a nursery and bought plants for his home.

But exactly what rule he violated is unclear. The policy manual says city vehicles should be used only for city business, unless stated otherwise in a written agreement. It does not deal with personal stops along the way.

The manual also does not mandate suspension without pay during an investigation. It says employees may be suspended.

City Administrator Charles Martin, who enforces policy, said he made the decision to suspend Chief Wetherington on his own. He would not say why.

Asked by a reporter what he would say to an officer picking up laundry on his way home, Chief Wetherington said, "I would tell him to be on the watch out for anybody that's trying to rob the dry cleaners."

He described a practice that seemingly contradicts the language of the manual. Officers in unmarked cars are encouraged to use them for errands within the city, so long as they're carrying identification, their weapon and fire gear, the chief said. They often spot trouble before patrol cars do, and their equipment can come in handy in an emergency.

The mayor said "corrective measures" had been taken in regard to the policy violation, but refused to say what that meant. The chief will be paid for his day off, per city policy.

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