Originally created 07/17/02

Officials recall concerns over donation requests



Jerry Newman, the former executive director of the Southeastern Burn Foundation, said he was skeptical when, about two years ago, he was approached by then-Augusta Fire Chief Ronnie Few for a donation to a local fire safety education program.

Mr. Newman, who has since taken a job as the executive director of the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs, said he refused Chief Few's request, in part, because he was told his donation would first be used as "seed money" to fund a special media awards banquet.

"Of course, he assured me the money would be put back, but honestly, I just did not trust him," Mr. Newman recalled last week from his home on Hilton Head Island, S.C. "In my opinion, that's kind of shady. When you start borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, there's always problems."

A special grand jury report released last week accuses Augusta's former fire chief of "shaking down vendors" for contributions on several occasions.

"The fire service got a bad taste in its mouth about conferences held in Augusta; bad feelings, if you will, because of the way Few handled the money," said Mr. Newman, who was one of five candidates for fire chief who were passed over when the Augusta Commission decided to hire Chief Few.

The grand jury report also refers to a questionable donation request made by Chief Few at an August 1998 conference of the Georgia State Firefighters Association. Although he is never mentioned by name in the report, Jeffery Williams of Clay Fire Equipment is described as being approached by Chief Few for a $900 check to help buy more liquor for the conference's hospitality room.

"THERE IS NO RECORD as to what Few did with this money," the report said, highlighting that the check was made out to an account separate from the state firefighters association.

"As a public official, and as the sponsor of this conference, Few was way out of line," grand jurors wrote. "He was extracting money from a potential county vendor and did not document it."

Mr. Williams said that although it is not unusual for Clay Fire Equipment to contribute money to state associations, he was caught off guard by Chief Few's request.

"I remember thinking, 'You all should watch your expenses.' It was just a weird deal," Mr. Williams said. "I was iffy about the whole thing from the get-go."

Clay Fire Equipment submitted a bid to sell trucks to the city but never won a deal, something Mr. Williams said he now appreciates.

"The fact of the matter is about the whole fire truck bid - I'm so glad I didn't get it," he said. "You just don't know."

Bob Gay, the president and CEO of Bob Gay Fire Engines, said last week that it didn't take him long to realize that "something was amiss" in his business dealings with Chief Few.

"I've only been waiting three years for this report," said Mr. Gay, whose company is mentioned as being the victim of a questionable bid proceeding.

"I think it's been a long time coming," he said, adding that he was contacted several times by the grand jury.

Appendix documents show that Mr. Gay provided the low bid for five pumper trucks but that Chief Few recommended the Augusta Commission accept a higher bid, provided by Alabama-based Harless Fire Equipment.

"The (special grand jury) found a consensus that (Chief Few) had spent at least $38,000.00 more per engine than Augusta actually needed," the report reads regarding Mr. Gay's bid. Grand jurors described the purchase as being "filled with the appearance of impropriety."

A LETTER IN THE presentment's appendix indicates that Harless Fire Equipment donated $5,000 to the Phoenix Media Awards banquet.

"One of the ways fire administration secured more funds for these money-starved festivities (like the media awards) was to shake down the vendors that do business with the Fire Department," the report says.

Harless General Manager Mike Sims said the grand jury's allegations are false and misleading. He added that no one from his office was ever contacted by the special grand jury.

"The dealing with Augusta has not been any different than any other customer as far as ... the purchasing process," Mr. Sims said. "I've been with this company for 26 years, and our philosophy is if business has to be bought we don't need the business."

Local emergency medical service provider Gold Cross Ambulance also was singled out as having the "appearance of impropriety" for a $9,000 contribution to the department's Phoenix Media Awards.

Gold Cross Chief Executive Officer Tom Snyder said that the company actually donated $7,000 and that the money was supposed to be for the fire department's Transit House, to accommodate families displaced by fire.

"It's not unusual for us to support a community cause like that," Mr. Snyder said.

In the future, however, he said, he plans to look more closely at what his donation dollars are being used for.

"We still will support community projects, but I think I would look at it a little closer next time," Mr. Snyder said.

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