- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

Acting District of Columbia Fire Chief Ronnie Few is a competent leader who has fallen victim to a racist grand jury in Augusta, Ga., several former colleagues said yesterday during the chief's confirmation hearing before the D.C. Council.

Three commissioners from Augusta-Richmond County, where Chief Few headed the fire department for three years, described a conspiracy of Southern "good ol' boys" against that county's first black fire chief.

"They want to destroy black officials," Augusta businessman James Riles told the council's Judiciary Committee, referring to a grand jury and an Augusta daily newspaper.

Chief Few himself denied any wrongdoing to the council members, who asked detailed questions about the various topics of the special grand jury probe.

"I can assure you I've never done anything wrong in the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department," he said. "I don't know anyone in that department who would ever do anything wrong."

But when it came to specifics, Chief Few offered general denials, pleaded ignorance or dodged the question.

"On the advice of attorney, I don't feel it would be appropriate to address anything about the grand jury investigation because I don't know anything about it. I've done no wrong, so I'm not concerned about it," he said.

Chief Few, who headed the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department for three years, became acting chief in the District July 10 for an annual salary of $130,000.

The Washington Times first reported in June that Chief Few is one subject of a special grand jury probe investigating corruption and mismanagement in the Augusta-Richmond County government.

The investigation escalated last week when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation seized records from Chief Few's former offices and two other government offices.

The GBI's search warrant did not mention names of anyone who reportedly committed two felonies, but sources familiar with the investigation said Chief Few and his former public information officer, Katrice Bryant, are main targets.

The D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee is expected to vote in the next two weeks on whether to recommend Chief Few's confirmation to the entire panel, which then would take up the matter in November.

Yesterday, council members and the audience seemed taken aback by the racial charges expressed by the chief's Georgia supporters, but Mr. Riles prompted laughter when asked why Chief Few still is being pursued by a grand jury.

"It's just like a bad relationship with a woman," he said. "You might be leaving her, but she might not be through with you."

Chief Few himself still was testifying late last night. Fifteen more persons were scheduled to testify, all but one on behalf of the chief.

He did not say whether he thought the grand jury probe was motivated by racism, but he did criticize news coverage of the investigation by an Augusta daily newspaper.

One of his supporters from Augusta, however, invoked the Civil War while describing Chief Few's critics in Augusta.

"There are some folks there that don't believe the Civil War ever ended," Augusta-Richmond County Commissioner Willie Mayes said. "It is those people who are intent on destroying this young man's career."

The Augusta officials and others who were asked by the chief and Mayor Anthony A. Williams to testify on Chief Few's behalf also praised the nominee for his work in two Georgia fire departments.

They especially complimented him for modernizing and upgrading the fire departments in Augusta and East Point, an Atlanta suburb. Those departments had problems with firefighter training and equipment, similar to situations in the District's department.

But the tone of the hearing was set by the charges of racism, comments that harked back to the days of former Mayor Marion Barry, one government observer said.

"The thing that really appalled me today is the extent to which they played the race card," said Dorothy Brizill, who runs DCWatch, a D.C. government watchdog on-line magazine.

The first time a problem develops with the fire department, Ms. Brizill said, Chief Few will claim he is being criticized because he is black.

Mr. Williams yesterday dismissed the ongoing investigation that includes Chief Few.

On his way into One Judiciary Square, Mr. Williams told The Times, "whoever is doing this, they owe it to him to tell him if he's the subject of this investigation or not."

Even some council members indicated they believe the Augusta probe could be racially motivated.

Council member Vincent Orange, Ward 5 Democrat, said because Chief Few was Augusta's first black fire chief, "perhaps we should look at [the investigation] in that vein."

Council member Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat and Judiciary Committee chairman, asked the Augusta commissioners a series of questions that gave them more opportunity to say Chief Few is the victim of a racist plot.

Meanwhile, a local fire official testified that Chief Few earned the loyalty of the D.C. Firefighters Union when he expressed support for adding a fifth firefighter to ladder trucks and aides for battalion chiefs two safety measures recommended after the deaths of three D.C. firefighters since 1997.

"We want him to get on with the business of running the fire department," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the union.

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