Originally created 07/10/02

Report condemns spending



The adage "follow the money" led the special grand jury to some of the most damning allegations in Tuesday's presentment, and claims of acts that could be considered criminal.

One of former Fire Chief Ronnie Few's acts the special grand jury found appalling, and once in the 124-page report deemed "illegal," was how the chief opened a bank account for the Media Phoenix Awards. While he told the county nothing about the account, he used the county's federal tax identification number and falsely claimed the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department was incorporated and that he was its corporate president, according to the presentment.

It became, the special grand jury alleges, a secret slush fund, and when it ran dry, Chief Few ordered $4,000 transferred from a Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs' account without the association's knowledge or permission.

But the special grand jury didn't stop there - the presentment also references double billing, bogus reimbursements and missing documents in the fire department's budget.

The presentment lists lavish spending of public money for what it deemed nonessential items such as designer watches, name-brand sunglasses and $1,625 on bagpipes for the Color Guard, while the rank-and-file employees and station houses went without necessary items.

It questioned why the lowest bid submitted for equipment was rejected in favor of the highest bid from a company with which Chief Few had a long-term relationship here and at his former position in East Point. Furthermore, the special grand jury alleged Chief Few falsely told the commissioners that the bid specifications were prepared by a research and development committee when the chief replaced the committee's specifications with his own that fit a particular equipment manufacturer.

The presentment also cast suspicion on Chief Few's relationship to businesses that paid thousands of dollars for what the special grand jury thought were questionable benefits.

Without evidence to the contrary, the special grand jury concluded that public money, funneled through the 2000 Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs convention, paid for the singer who performed at the wedding of the chief's daughter. Also, the special grand jury concluded that a $316 white dress uniform paid for by the county was ordered by the chief to wear to his daughter's wedding.

The alleged improprieties did not go unquestioned within city government. Grand jurors report that whenever Chief Few's financial dealings were scrutinized, the chief was insulated and protected by members of the Augusta Commission. The report says Chief Few circumvented policies and procedures by aligning himself with politically connected people, including purchasing director Geri Sams. When finance department employees tried to enforce procedure "they found their motives questioned and their reputation impugned," by elected officials.

Ms. Sams is on vacation and won't return until next week, officials said.

Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig said Tuesday afternoon he could not comment on the special grand jury presentment or the possibility of any future criminal indictment. He noted the special grand jury and the regular grand jury are still working.

"My oath is to protect their oath of secrecy," Mr. Craig said.

Mike Seigler, the special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Thomson office, also would not comment on Tuesday's special grand jury presentment. GBI agents, including the special financial investigation unit, have both testified before the special grand jury and obtained documents for it, he said.

"We have an active investigation going on in connection with this (special grand jury work,)" Agent Seigler said.

Although Gwinnett Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Porter cautioned that his comments were without benefit of firsthand knowledge of the facts, he said some of the actions outlined in the special grand jury's findings might constitute criminal acts.

Public corruption prosecutions, however, are difficult in that they cannot rely solely on documents because criminal intent must be proven, Mr. Porter said.

The key question is: Was any public money in any way used or taken to provide a personal benefit, he said. If that is true, it's a felony offense, Mr. Porter continued. "You can steal a penny or a million dollars and it's still a felony."

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.