- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

The public relations campaign for acting District of Columbia Fire Chief Ronnie Few charged into high gear yesterday in anticipation of his confirmation hearing today before a D.C. Council committee.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams' press office worked feverishly to arrange telephone interviews for The Washington Times with Chief Few's former colleagues, who praised him for his work at two Georgia fire departments.

At the same time, a mayoral appointee criticized The Times for its coverage of Chief Few, saying officials close to Mr. Williams are "displeased" that The Times covered the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's seizure of documents from Chief Few's former offices in Augusta last week.

"If you have a smoking gun, please give it to me," said Robert Pittman, the mayor's appointee to the Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee. "We're very concerned with the stories you're doing on Ronnie Few. It's hard to understand why there's even a need to report some of this information."

Chief Few, who headed the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department for three years, took over as acting chief of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department July 10 for an annual salary of $130,000.

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

The grand jury is examining Chief Few's role in a number of areas, including pay raises he gave, department bidding and procurement activities, a "media awards" account he opened without authorization, costly cellular telephone bills that weren't paid before inquiries from the media, and outstanding bills for a fire chiefs convention he organized.

Last week, the GBI raided Chief Few's former offices and two other Augusta offices to seize all financial records. A search warrant said the agency was investigating two felonies, but it did not mention names of targets.

Sources familiar with the investigation told The Times that records of purchases and bank accounts controlled by Chief Few and his former public information officer, Katrice Bryant, were the focus of the search warrants.

Chief Few has not returned repeated phone calls from The Times over the past week. He has made general denials of wrongdoing in the past.

Miss Bryant could not be located yesterday.

A staffer in the mayor's press office arranged interviews with, or provided cellular and home phone numbers for, seven officials who have worked with Chief Few, and checked on the status of reporting.

The Georgia officials praised the nominee yesterday, almost all of them noting he has a knack for turning around troubled fire departments. They also dismissed the grand jury probe.

Several of them are traveling to the District today to testify for Chief Few, at the request of the chief or Mr. Williams.

Lee Beard, a Richmond County commissioner, said Chief Few "has done an excellent job in Augusta" and took "the fire service to another dimension from where it was."

He downplayed the grand jury probe, saying "everyone is being investigated."

Two other commissioners were in a vehicle traveling to the District with Mr. Beard at the time of the interview, but he said they were not available.

"You're gaining a great chief," said Ann Douglas, a City Council member in East Point, Ga., an Atlanta suburb where Chief Few grew up, became a firefighter and then fire chief.

"It was a great loss" when he left to be fire chief in Augusta in 1997, Mrs. Douglas said. "I wish we could have held on to him."

Chief Few brought the fire department to its best performance in city history, said Mrs. Douglas, who is flying into the District today to testify at the hearing.

As the first black fire chief in Augusta, Chief Few brought women into the fire service and made enemies in Augusta's racist "old-boy network," said Carl Holmes, who runs a fire department consulting firm from Oklahoma City and has known Chief Few for about 20 years.

"A lot of the good ol' boys kind of got left by the wayside, and they didn't like that, especially it being done by an African-American," said Mr. Holmes, who trained Augusta firefighters during Chief Few's tenure. "That old-line Augusta, Georgia, machinery was still in place, but Ronnie's pretty hardheaded."

Mr. Pittman called the chief's work in Augusta "impressive," and said he was "the best" of the three candidates whom the search committee sent to Mr. Williams.

"From what we've been able to ascertain, there's nothing that points to this gentleman that he's done anything wrong," said Mr. Pittman, also a member of the search committee. "I see him as an honorable person. He's not shown anything to the contrary."

But when asked how he examined the charges surrounding Chief Few's tenure in Augusta, he said staff from the mayor's office told him, "there's nothing there."

So "that's all I have to go on," he added.

Mr. Pittman said the executive search firm and Chief Few did not disclose that the chief was one subject of a grand jury inquiry.

Asked if the investigation by Georgia authorities is a concern, he said, "sure, it concerns me." But, he added, "a person is found guilty by a jury. Let's wait and see what comes out of this."

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