Originally created 07/10/02

Grand jury says chief was 'bandit'



For the second time since convening more than 2 1/2 years ago, the Richmond County special grand jury is calling for widespread reform in city government, this time pointing to apparent impropriety in Augusta's fire department as evidence of recurring micromanagement and political gridlock.

In their report, grand jurors said former Augusta Fire Chief Ronnie Few operated his $14 million department with a total disregard for city policy and procedure. He was able to do so, in part, because of an atmosphere of political cronyism created by the misplaced loyalties of some Augusta Commission members, jurors said.

"Chief Few took more from the city than he ever contributed," the report's conclusion said. "He proclaimed that we were flat on our backs when he came, but it is certain that we were on our knees when he left."

The 124-page presentment, which was made public Tuesday, is the most scathing to date and details longstanding practices of unfair promotions, questionable payouts to favored employees and politically motivated leadership in the fire department under the tenure of Chief Few.

Describing him as a "bandit," the document paints a portrait of a man so obsessed with public image that he was able to defy and ignore county policy and procedure, apparently costing taxpayers thousands in unauthorized expenses.

A message left on Chief Few's cell phone voice mail in Washington, D.C., was not immediately returned. He announced last month that - after less than two years on the job - he would resign as chief of the Washington fire department.

The report, the grand jury's seventh to date, is the most extensive to emerge since the panel convened 31 months ago.

The most interesting discoveries detailed in the report include:

  • The practice of "skipping ranks," which grand jurors said was instituted by Chief Few. Deputy Chief Carl Scott was singled out as "the most egregious example" of the practice. Jurors called for him to be "relieved of his duties" because he has fallen short of the basic expectations of the job.
  • The mishandling of money and the purchase of extravagant items, ranging from Ray Ban sunglasses for a special honor guard to a white dress uniform for his daughter's wedding.
  • The intimidation and harassment of employees who questioned Chief Few's management practices, including former City Administrator Randy Oliver and Human Resources Director Brenda Byrd-Pelaez.
  • Questionable contracts that were awarded to friends and former colleagues of Chief Few, which included reimbursements for travel expenses and extravagant meals.
  • CHIEF FEW'S HIRING as the city's first black fire chief was widely touted and supported by elected officials, grand jurors said, but it also caused commissioners to protect Chief Few at any cost.

    "The entire government was hobbled when dealing with Chief Few," the report said. "The commissioners, in creating an icon because of the man's race, let a bandit run roughshod."

    Most city officials who could be reached for comment Tuesday said they had not yet had an opportunity to read the entire report and declined to discuss specifics.

    The topic of the report appeared to come as no surprise to anyone, though, despite the shroud of secrecy grand jury members have been under since December 1999.

    Invoices on file in the city's accounting department have indicated that the grand jurors are separated into committees that have been studying different areas of local government, including the airport, the Augusta Commission, the city's pension plans and wastewater treatment plant. Tuesday's presentment marks the first one to come from the fire service committee.

    "Based on the questions and where they've been probing, I knew there was going to be something about (the fire department)," said Mr. Oliver, whose authority, the grand jurors reported, was blatantly disregarded by Chief Few.

    The former city administrator declined to comment on the grand jury's findings concerning his position.

    In addition to ignoring Mr. Oliver, grand jurors said, Chief Few refused to cooperate with the city's equal opportunity employment officer, Ms. Byrd-Pelaez, when she confronted him about the misuse of personnel, pay increases and promotions.

    "When dealing with Chief Few, she found that he had free (rein) to hinder such investigations," the report said.

    Ms. Byrd-Pelaez said she believed that any time she requested information from the fire department, she was accused of being part of a conspiracy to oust the chief.

    "They're not off the mark on what they've said," Ms. Byrd-Pelaez said Tuesday. "I was always on the defensive as to why I was bringing up a complaint."

    City Administrator George Kolb, who had a copy of the report on his desk late Tuesday, said he planned to review the document and then decide what action - if any - he needed to take concerning fire department operations.

    "The only thing I have learned since coming here is that this system of government has existed for a very long time," said Mr. Kolb, who recently accused one Augusta commissioner of disregarding the chain of command. "As we begin to implement more policies and procedures, we'll begin to look at a culture that more clearly defines the roles of things."

    JURORS REPORTED that the fire department presentment was the culmination of hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 100 witnesses. Jurors said they subpoenaed budgets, expenses reports, phone bills, checking accounts, personnel records, billing reports and purchase orders in addition to letters and internal memos as part of their investigation.

    The report is accompanied by an appendix that includes more than 300 pages of documents and evidence, ranging from internal memos to copies of cashed checks.

    Some officials already are debunking the reports findings.

    "What I don't understand is why we're still talking about Chief Few," said Commissioner Marion Williams, one of three elected officials who traveled to Washington in September 2000 to urge District of Columbia city council members to hire him. "If Chief Few did something, and they have reason to call him in, they need to do that."

    AMONG THE FINDINGS

    MONEY:

    Much of the report details a trail of mismanaged money-handling, including:

  • Three checks totaling more than $236,000 that were found in a fire administration drawer. The checks were from the sale of fire equipment, and the failure to turn them over to accounting officials cost taxpayers $3,000 to $5,000.
  • Absent documentation, double billing and bogus reimbursements for travel expenses.
  • Jurors allege that Chief Few ordered $4,000 transferred from a fire chiefs convention account to an "illegal" account for the Phoenix Media Awards.
  • A $20,292 payment to Atlanta Health Systems for "wellness programs" that grand jurors said were seldom used.
  • The "needlessly extravagant" honor guard, which Chief Few supplied with special outfits and accessories, including $480 Ray Ban sunglasses and $1,625 for bagpipes.
  • Chief Few spent about a quarter of a million dollars of fire department funds to rent administration offices.
  • MANAGEMENT:

    The report talks about unfair promotion and disciplinary practices:

  • The ability of some firefighters to skip ranks, the most egregious of whom was Deputy Fire Chief Carl Scott.
  • The practice of hiring "cronies" to conduct department promotion examinations, creating a lack of objectivity.
  • The apparent destruction of testing materials and scores.
  • Operations:

    Grand jurors describe a pattern of frivolous spending and recurring public deception:

  • Thousands of dollars for videotapes ranging from public service messages to awards banquet videos, in addition to a tribute video.
  • Chief Few often pulled employees from their daily duties to handle public relations projects.
  • The special grand jury found fraudulent data when reviewing the fire department's report on the River Creek Apartments fire. The report was filled with pictures of piles of debris labeled as proof of "poor housekeeping." "(The fire department) neglected to point out that these were remnants of a major fire that burned out 16 families and all of their possessions."
  • Chief Few obtained the loyalty of favored employees, such as Katrice Bryant. "A search of her computers showed anonymous letters written to local publications defending Few's policies. This same search showed a connection with a local weekly paper."
  • Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.