Governor says he can’t suspend Clayton County sheriff

The governor says he cannot suspend Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill while he fights 32 felony charges of racketeering and theft. This means Hill will remain sheriff unless he is convicted.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office said in a news release Thursday that “after careful evaluation of the facts in the case and the applicable state law,” the governor concluded he cannot appoint a committee to make a recommendation on suspending Hill, because Hill was not in office when the indictment was returned a year ago. The committee would consist of the attorney general and two sheriffs.

“The law outlining the procedures for the suspension of public officials under indictment applies only to officials indicted while holding their elected office,” the statement said.

The key words in state law, the governor’s office said, define a public official as “ ‘any elected county officer.’ Victor Hill was indicted on Feb. 29, 2012, at which time he was a private citizen and not an elected county officer. Therefore, state law prohibits the appointment of a suspension panel at this time.”

The head of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association disagreed. The association had urged Deal to name a suspension panel in November.

"We feel that we, as the Sheriffs' Association, have done what we are supposed to do in an attempt to ensure the integrity of the office," said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, president of the association. "I believe the governor's attorney's interpretation of the statute is incorrect. But I'm not the one the law says shall appoint the committee, so therefore my opinion on the matter is of little consequence to the executive part of state government. I just don't understand it."

The charges against Hill concern his first term in office, Jan. 1, 2005 through Dec. 31, 2008. The indictment, the result of a special grand jury investigation, alleges that Hill used county-issued credit cards and county cars for personal reasons, including vacations with a woman on his staff. Hill is accused of having her time off work for the trips counted as sick leave. That’s the basis of one of the theft counts. He also is accused of violating his oath of office, requiring Sheriff’s Office employees to work on his charity projects during normal business hours, and trying to influence a witness.

Initially Hill was charged with 37 counts but Judge Albert Collier dropped five of them, including two racketeering charges. An appeal of Collier’s decision has delayed the trial.

Drew Findling, one of Hill’s four defense attorneys, said he was not surprised by the governor’s decision.

“We were familiar with the law so we knew the governor had no choice in the matter,” Findling said. “The facts and circumstances in the case dictate that no action be taken anyway.”

Hill pleaded innocent and has insisted that the criminal case was brought only because he announced he was running for the office he lost in the 2008 election.

Hill defeated Sheriff Kem Kimbrough in last summer’s Democratic primary and then took three-fourths of the vote in the November general election against a write-in candidate. Hill assumed the office on Tuesday even though his state law enforcement certification has been suspended since he was indicted, which means the sheriff cannot make arrests or serve warrants.

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association had asked the governor in a Nov. 19 letter to appoint a panel right then so a decision could be made before Hill took office after midnight New Year’s Day. Sills wrote in the letter that Georgia law required Deal to name a panel to consider whether the pending charges would interfere with Hill’s ability to do the job.

For example, Sills said Thursday, Hill will be responsible for deputies who provide security for the prosecutor and the judge, overseeing jurors and securing evidence submitted during the sheriff’s trial.

“If that doesn’t have an adverse effect on the office I don’t know what would,” Sills said.