Mayor Bob Young broke no law when he wrote an upbeat letter recommending former Fire Chief Ronnie Few to Washington, D.C., officials two years ago. But it was a serious error in judgment to give a glowing endorsement to a public safety official under investigation for malfeasance, ethics experts say.
"The (mayor) had two decisions: One was right, and one was very wrong," said Marc Drizen, the vice president and employee loyalty specialist for Walker Information, an Indianapolis research company specializing in business ethics and corporate reputation.
Mr. Young has said he crafted the 2 1/2 -page letter of recommendation to get Chief Few out of Augusta, where, according to a recent special grand jury presentment, the chief's ego and strong-arm political tactics were compromising the city's fire department.
"It was a lousy thing to do," said Edwin Hartman, the director of the Prudential Business Ethics Center at Rutgers University. "Obviously, it was a serious breach of ethics. I can certainly understand the mayor was trying to help Augusta, but what he did was dishonest."
Washington officials were incensed last week at Mr. Young's positive portrayal of Chief Few after results of the grand jury's probe into Chief Few's tumultuous tenure in Augusta were made public.
The grand jury presentment was released nearly a month after Chief Few announced he would resign as the fire chief of Washington, where he had been under political pressure after allegations of micromanagement and errors on his resume that were exposed this year.
Mr. Young acknowledges that at the time he wrote the letter, Chief Few was causing a problem with employees in the city government, but notes that the results of the grand jury investigation were not known.
"If we had known two years ago what we know now, the letter never would have been written," the mayor said. "All we knew back then was that certain people couldn't get along with (Chief Few)."
Mr. Young also said that Washington Mayor Anthony Williams made the decision to hire Chief Few in June 2000 based on a recommendation by a headhunting company made several months before he wrote his letter.
Mr. Hartman said that even if Mr. Young had been afraid to mention the allegations in the letter, he could have written it in a more neutral tone.
"You can use words such as 'frequently performs competently,' or 'does well under supervision,"' Mr. Hartman said. "Those would have been accurate statements, and the prospective employer could have read between the lines."
Mr. Young even could have been blunt if he had wanted to - Georgia is one of several states that protects employers who give negative recommendations from employee lawsuits, so long as the information is accurate.
What makes the situation unique is that the mayor's September 2000 letter has a positive bent.
"I've never seen a situation where an employer hired based on an inaccurate positive reference," said Jonathan Martin, an employment attorney for the Macon, Ga., office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith.
Employment law experts said they doubt that Washington officials have any legal recourse under false-statement or negligence statutes because Mr. Young's letter - though it glossed over the grand jury investigation - did not contain factual inaccuracies.
It's obvious Chief Few has no legal claim against Mr. Young under defamation statutes, said J. Edward Enoch Jr., an Augusta employment attorney at Rhodes, Enoch & Taylor.
"Slander or libel is only when you do harm. In this case, you wouldn't have slandered or damaged the employee," said Mr. Enoch, who also said he is perplexed by the letter. "I don't know where I've ever run into a case where somebody has given too good a reference."
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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