Clayton sheriff’s two-terms have been costly

Clayton County has paid nearly $11.5 million to settle lawsuits and other legal matters involving Sheriff Victor Hill during his nearly two terms in office, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That equates to almost half of the sheriff’s department’s annual operating budget. The lion’s share of payouts - about $10.4 million - stems from a mass firing Hill instituted on his first day in office in January 2005. That figure, which includes payments to the workers and attorneys’ fees, is $3 million above previously-released figures regarding that settlement, a recent review of the documents show.

The overall costly tab drew a range of surprise and concern from county officials as well as some supporters of the 51-year-old sheriff who recently walked away unscathed from charges tied to the accidental shooting of a friend in Gwinnett County last year. (The county is not responsible for paying anything related to that case.)

The revelation comes just as the enormously-popular sheriff heads into his third term in January. Voters overwhelmingly elected in May to keep Hill in office without so much as a runoff against any of the four challengers he faced.

The controversial firings dogged Hill throughout his first term and part of his second term as he dealt with lawsuits and other legal matters. He spent the first part of his second term in court on corruption charges of which he was acquitted.

With the exception of an accidental shooting of a friend in Gwinnett County last year, county officials and other observers say the 51-year-old sheriff has buckled down, kept a low-profile and grown admirably in his role.

“Victor has done a yeoman’s job,” said former Clayton Commissioner Chairman Eldrin Bell who often butt heads with Hill, a former protege, while he was in office. “He has matured significantly. He and I get along just fine now. I help him every chance I get.”

While Bell declined to discuss Hill’s tab to the county, the county’s current top elected official expressed his concerns.

“Anytime we spend additional money out of the general funds on something that could have been avoided, that’s problematic,” Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said. When asked if any other individual elected official or government employee cost the county as much in legal fees, Turner replied:

“Not to my knowledge.”

Efforts to reach Hill were unsuccessful.

As sheriff, Hill is primarily responsible for providing security for the county courthouse and jail as well as serving warrants and other civil papers.

A large part of Hill’s popularity comes from his continual push beyond the parameters of his job. He bills himself as a “crimefighter” and in that role he has dispatched squad cars to sit overnight in neighborhoods at the request of anxious residents. He frequents neighborhood crime watch meetings and other community events. He has sent cheery robocall messages on special days such as Mother’s Day.

Such acts have endeared the sheriff to many residents. But the way the colorful sheriff has gone about his job has irked others who say his legal run-ins places undue financial pressure on a county already burdened with heavy economic problems.

On Jan. 3, 2005, Hill made national headlines on his first day as sheriff by firing a group of deputies and workers who were escorted out under heavy guard and rooftop snipers.

According to documents obtained by The AJC, the county wound up paying $10,398,826.00 to 34 people to settle that case. Individual payouts ranged from a little over $94,000 to correctional officers, sheriff’s deputies and a department secretary to more than $280,000 paid to a veteran department captain, documents show. A judge later returned the group to their former jobs. Some retired. Some transferred to other county departments.

The remaining $1 million or so in other legal payouts involved two other lawsuits and several fender-benders involving Hill.

Hill paid $300,000 from the Sheriff’s department’s budget to settle a false-arrest case involving Mark Tuggle, the brother of former Clayton Sheriff Stanley Tuggle. Angry that Hill had fired the deputies, Mark Tuggle called the sheriff’s department twice over two days shortly after the firings and left expletive-laced messages. Tuggle was arrested Jan. 4, 2005 for making harassing phone calls, a misdemeanor. The case was dismissed the following day. A check was cut on Aug. 23, 2013, to settle that case.

In August of this year, the county agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a three-year-old case involving three former sheriff’s department officers who accused Hill of creating a hostile workplace and demoting them.

In one case, the owner of a 2002 BMW was paid $3,850.39 for damages caused by the April 17, 2015 accident near Ga. Hwy 138 and Walt Stephens Road, records show.

Those payments have occurred during his second term, which began in January 2013. Hill lost his first bid for a second term to Kim Kimbrough but then defeated Kimbrough to return for a second time in office.

The county is not responsible for Hill’s tab during his 2013 corruption trial or last year’s shooting of real estate broker Gwenevere McCord.

All told, the various payments involving the county’s obligations were made through a combination of insurance payouts and money from the county’s general fund.

Marie Williams of Riverdale said paying for Hill’s legal battles is a small price to pay for the law and order he has brought to the county jail system and the community.

“I’m very positive about his work,” said Williams who has lived in Clayton since 1980. “When he first took office and fired all of the deputies, everybody was real upset about it. He knew those people may be against him. He had to get rid of those things that would hold him down.”

But criticis say Hill’s legal debts pose an undue burden on already-financially pressured residents. Half of the homes in Clayton are underwater, meaning homeowners owe more on their homes than they’re worth.

“We feel the pinch in our taxes and our mortgages,” said Dwayne Fabian, a retired Georgia State trooper and one of four challengers who ran against Hill in the May Primary. The 16-year Clayton resident called Hill’s legal cost to the county “very extreme.”

Clayton resident Timothy Vondell Jefferson was shocked when told of the sheriff’s legal costs to the county.

“What’s most disturbing is that the money this individual has cost the county could have been used for land purchase and true economic development that would have brought in jobs,” Jefferson said.

The head of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association said it’s not uncommon for sheriffs to be hit with lawsuits. They come in contact with a wider swath of the community than police departments because of their duties: serving warrants and running jails. The legal entanglements often involve inmates and their own staff.

“Every sheriff gets sued,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the sheriffs’ group. But he concedes Hill’s case is hard to analyze because “I don’t have anything to compare it to.”

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CLAYTON COUNTY SHERIFF VICTOR KEITH HILL

Age: 51

Salary: $114,812.80 (It increases to $123,663.80 in January 2017)

Department budget (General Fund):$24.28 million, down from $24.36 million in FY 2016

Staff: 377

Warrants received: 13,200, up from 12,900 in FY 2016.

Warrants served: 11,700, up from 11,359 in FY 2016

Civil processes served: 51,100, up from 50,300 in FY 2016

Distinction: He became Clayton’s first black sheriff in 2005.

Note: Figures are for Fiscal Year 2017 unless otherwise noted.

Source: Clayton County Finance Department and Clayton Fiscal Year 2017 budget

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