Governor plans 'close look' at Clayton sheriff

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office declined Wednesday to say when he would start the legal process that could remove indicted Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill.

State law gives the governor authority to seek the suspension of elected officials charged with crimes. Hill, who took office this week, is facing 32 felony charges. But the law doesn’t give the governor any deadline, so he can act as quickly or slowly as he chooses on Hill.

In mid November, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association asked the governor to appoint two sheriffs and the attorney general to review Hill’s ability to serve while defending himself against charges that he committed crimes when he was sheriff the first time. They asked the governor to do it as soon as possible in the hope that a decision on Hill’s suspension could be made before he took office.

The governor declined to do anything until Hill had taken office.

With Hill in office as of Tuesday, the Governor’s Office and the sheriffs association fielded calls Wednesday about what will happen now.

“I know there’s tremendous interest in the Sheriff Victor Hill case now that he has taken office,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said in an email to media outlets. “The governor plans to take a close look at this particular case, as it is unique in its circumstances. The office will not be making any news on this issue today. I promise you that we’ll have communications on this at some juncture in the near future, and you’ll all know about it when it happens.”

Terry Norris, executive director of the sheriffs association, said members had been calling his office as well.

“They’re as confused about the law as anybody,” Norris said.

Hill was indicted in January 2012 on racketeering, theft and other charges. He is accused of crimes when he was sheriff Jan. 1, 2005 through Dec. 31, 2008. Hill and his lawyers have insisted that the case was brought only because he had announced he was running again for the office he lost in 2008 to Kem Kimbrough.

Despite the criminal charges, Hill defeated Kimbrough in the Democratic primary and then won the general election in November in which his only opposition was a write-in candidate.

Hill did not respond to a message left at his office Wednesday. His office said he was out, “meeting with constituents.”

According to state law, the governor must appoint three people — in this case the attorney general and two sheriffs — once he receives a certified copy of an indictment against a public official. The indictment was sent to Deal in mid November.

But the law does not say when he must name that committee, said University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson.

“Seems to me the wild card … is how long the governor has to make that appointment,” Carlson said. “It could be delayed for an extended period. There is nothing in the statue that says it cannot work that way.”

Once the panel is named, the members have 14 days to make a recommendation. If the committee recommends suspension with pay, $104,000 a year, the final decision is the governor’s.

If Hill is convicted, he will automatically be removed from office.

Norris said it’s not unusual for a governor to take some time before naming a committee to look at whether a troubled sheriff should be suspended temporarily.

“I remain optimistic that Governor Deal will want to review the situation and act accordingly,” Norris said.