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Ex-firefighter never expected a pass on wrongdoing

After admitting to falsifying fire reports, Clay Davis tries to get on with his life
by: Chase Allgood, Former firefighter Clay Davis, his trial over, muses on his future in his Forest Grove back yard.

When Gary Clay Davis pleaded guilty last week to official misconduct, he apologized to the court for what he calls a mistake that's turned his life into a nightmare.

Now, Davis, who resigned November as lieutenant at the Forest Grove Fire Department after admitting to falsifying fire inspection reports, is trying to move on.

The plea bargain that Davis reached with assistant district attorney Kevin Kelley ends a six-month ordeal that's introduced tension to not only Davis' life, but the firehouse that he spent 21 years working in.

Davis won't serve any jail time. Presiding Judge Thomas Kohl said last week in Washington County Circuit Court that once Davis completes 80 hours of community service, he'll end a one-year bench probation (which means he won't have a probation officer).

The sentence was a relief for Davis, who told the News-Times that the real punishment was exacted last year.

'From the beginning when this came to light I never asked, nor expected, a complete pass on this,' he said. 'I knew I had done something wrong and I was willing to accept those consequences.'

The investigation

Forest Grove Fire Chief Robert Mills first became suspicious of some of Davis' fire inspections in early November after a spot-check showed irregularities in the required paperwork.

Mills interviewed a business owner about the kind of service that Davis provided during a late October building inspection. When the business owner said Davis hadn't inspected the building in a year, Mills dreaded the worst.

A month-long investigation by Forest Grove police turned up a handful of inspection reports that had been forged.

Davis said that he was in the dark while the investigation was going on and didn't learn of it until he was called into the police station for an interview.

After the interview, Davis was cited for tampering with public records, second-degree forgery, second-degree possession of a forged document and second-degree official misconduct.

Official misconduct is a class C misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,250 fine and 30 days in jail, the other charges are class A misdemeanors that carry a penalty of $6,250 and a year in jail.

At that point, he said he admitted what he had done, but asked for leniency.

'I pleaded with Chief Mills to look at my record and my history of community service. I asked him to take that into consideration and give me a second chance to right the wrong,' Davis said.

Davis, 49, a 21-year veteran of the fire department, asked that he be demoted or disciplined but be allowed to continue working in the firehouse. Instead, the city brokered a deal with Davis to resign last Nov. 29.

'Losing my job and my brothers and sisters that I work with …' Davis said. 'I didn't expect that's what I'd wind up paying.'

Davis said the combined stress of learning his new post - he had only served as lieutenant for a year by the time he resigned - and working with crew members struggling with family illness piled pressure onto pressure.

'I was learning to the best of my ability without much help from above,' said Davis. 'It was just kind of learn as you go.'

Web site funnels discontent

Mills' management style came under more scrutiny on March 22, when former firefighter Jim Brown launched a web site, www.thetruthaboutforestgrovefire.com, that detailed a host of complaints from former firefighters about firehouse operations.

At the core of the web site's charges were that Mills' temper created a hostile work environment and that inspections were often done on the fly or as 'drive-bys.'

As a result, Brown and other contributors to the web site (Davis now counts himself as a contributor) feel that Davis was treated unfairly by Mills.

'Had that management style been changed and if the issues brought forth been addressed, I would not have been in the courtroom today,' Davis said, hours after his circuit court hearing.

Mills has strongly refuted the web site's charges and said he had to follow the law in Davis' case.

'Let's suppose I just handled this completely internally and just pushed it under the carpet, so to speak, and somebody was injured in one of those businesses and it got back that those inspections weren't done,' Mills said. 'Where would that put me at this point? My job isn't just to run the fire department, but to make sure citizens are protected.'

The Web site drew a terse response from City Manager Michael Sykes, who said the timing of Internet publicity could undermine the city's efforts to pass a public safety levy on the May 15 ballot.

Davis said that was never his intent. In fact, he said, he plans to vote for the levy.

Davis said losing his $5,000-a-month paycheck from the fire department has hurt his family tremendously.

A new venture

He's hoping now that his trial is over, he'll be able to repair his bonds with the community and provide for his family again.

In February, he started a new business, called First Ed, teaching CPR and basic first aid to businesses like Costco and construction companies.

Davis said business was good in February but slowed down in March and April as he dealt with the final negotiations and court appearances in his case.

'I've received a lot of support from the community and friends,' Davis said, who spent years coaching local school sports.

His wife, Toni, helped maintain and launder team uniforms, and his three daughters have been active in community events, as well.

'My wife and I were at a point where we were looking to finishing our careers and retiring in reasonable security,' Davis said. 'Now I'm going to be turning 50 in August and we find ourselves in a state of financial insecurity.'