Clayton County sheriff takes office despite charges against him

Clayton County’s new sheriff, who won the office by calling himself a crime fighter, has started his term despite being accused of crimes himself.

At midnight Monday, Victor Hill again became sheriff, a job he won in 2004 but lost in 2008. He reclaimed it despite 32 pending felony charges, and he almost immediately dispatched deputies to set up roadblocks early Tuesday to catch drunken New Year’s drivers.

But whether he continues in the office while his racketeering and theft charges are unresolved is not certain.

The Georgia Sheriff’s Association asked the governor weeks ago to appoint a committee of the attorney general and two sheriffs to recommend whether Hill should be suspended with pay while he remains under indictment.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office said repeatedly in recent weeks that the governor would do nothing until Hill is sheriff. Since Tuesday was a holiday, the governor still has not acted.

So, until the governor appoints a committee, if he does, and it recommends suspending Hill and the governor agrees, Hill will remain sheriff.

“They should just let this take its course,” Drew Findling, one of Hill’s four criminal defense lawyers, said of calls to suspend the colorful and controversial sheriff.

Even if he stays in office until his yet-to-be scheduled trial, he will be a sheriff without a key law enforcement power. The Peace Officers Standards and Training Council suspended the certification Hill has held since he was a homicide detective, certification that is required to make arrests or serve warrants.

Hill did not respond to requests for comment made in text messages and through his attorneys over the past two weeks.

Clayton County voters returned Hill to office after they had turned him out in 2008, ending a four-year term that was controversial and sometimes attracted national news coverage. Eight years ago, Hill started his first term as sheriff by firing 27 employees and having them escorted off Clayton County Jail property as snipers were posted on the roof. They won a federal lawsuit, were reinstated and were awarded $7 million.

Hill claimed almost 54 percent of the vote in last summer’s primary race against Kem Kimbrough, who defeated Hill in 2008. He then took 76 percent of the vote in the November election in which his only opposition was a write-in candidate, Kimbrough’s chief deputy Garland Watkins.

Hill and his lawyers have insisted the criminal case was politically motivated, noting that it began after he announced he was a candidate.

A probate court judge quietly administered his oath of office on Dec. 13.

Despite the election, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has insisted Hill should be suspended to spare the office any turmoil a criminal case brings. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, president of the association, asked the governor weeks ago to begin the process of determining if Hill should be suspended so a decision would be made by the time he took office Tuesday. Sills said the association received no response.

“He cannot make an arrest nor can he execute or participate in the execution of a search warrant,” Sills said. “And I don’t think he can buy a firearm. The arrest power is the primal authority of any police officer.

“He has the ability to suspend himself,” Sills said. “He should step aside and take all this controversy away. If he’s not guilty, he’s going to be sheriff. He’s perpetuating a cloud over the office of sheriff.”

The indictment, the product of a special grand jury investigation, accuses Hill of using county resources to take vacations and to buy personal items. It also says he assigned employees to work on his 2008 re-election campaign and a charity event during work hours. He is accused of classifying one employee as absent due to sickness so she could accompany him out of town.

The trial was initially scheduled for October, but it was delayed when prosecutors appealed Judge Albert Collier’s decision to dismiss five of the original 37 charges. The Court of Appeals will hear arguments Feb. 12.