Originally created 07/09/02

Grand jury releases report



Long-standing practices of unfair promotions, questionable payouts and politically motivated leadership in Augusta's fire department are the topic of the Richmond County Special Grand Jury's seventh and most extensive report, which was made public this morning.

The grand jury's latest report is summarized in a 124-page presentment and marks the most in-depth investigation to date of city operations. Although it focuses primarily on the department's activities under the tenure of former Augusta Fire Chief Ronnie Few, grand jurors lay the blame for problems within the department squarely at the feet of city politicians. They contend that if Augusta commissioners hadn't micro-managed and protected a political crony then Chief Few's reign and misdeeds would not have taken place.

"The importance of this report is not what it reveals about Chief Few, but what it exposes about our government, it politicians and our community as a whole," grand jurors wrote.

They said their investigations uncovered a number of illegal practices, including hiding checks from the city's Finance Department, fraudulent moving expenses when Chief Few accepted the Augusta job, discrimination within department training programs, as well as unfair pay raises and evaluations.

"Much of the blame ... lies in the system that rewards mediocrity as long as its major adornment is blind loyalty to the reigning establishment," grand jurors wrote about the recurring favoritism practiced by fire department leadership.

Jurors said they studied morale issues, promotions and fair and consistent application of policies and procedures. They interviewed more than 100 witnesses for hundreds of hours from chiefs to rookies. The evidence panelists studied included budgets, expenses reports, phone bills, checking accounts, personnel records, billing reports and purchase orders in addition to letters and internal memos.

Although the special grand jury's actions have been under a shroud of secrecy since its members were selected in December 1999, invoices on file in the city's accounting department have indicated that grand jurors are separated into committees studying different areas of local government, including the airport, the Augusta Commission, the pension plan, the waster water treatment plant and the fire department.

Today's presentment marks the first one to come from the Fire Department committee.

The presentment maintains that any questions raised about Chief Few, including those posed by the special grand jury, were met with allegations of racism. They referred to a trip by several commissioners to Washington to support Chief Few in his move to head the fire department in the nation's capital, a "stunning display of blind loyalty" that labeled criticism of Chief Few as racism.

"He (Few) proclaimed that we were flat on our backs when he came," jurors wrote, "but it is certain that we were on our knees when he left."

The special grand jurors have released seven presentments on city government ranging from a study of the city's risk management costs to its most scathing report in January 2001, which targeted Augusta commissioners, accusing them of divisiveness, incompetence and practicing micromanagement.

Augusta Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig and a single special grand jury member handed over the 5-inch thick document in a second-floor courtroom of the city municipal building Monday, but it was not made public until today, after Judge Albert M. Pickett had signed off on it.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.