Politics or ministry? Ga. sheriff uses chaplains to reach voters

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill with political consultant Rev. Mitzi Bickers, who is a central figure in the federal investigation into Atlanta City Hall bribery. Hill hired Bickers to be one of his chaplains in October.

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Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill with political consultant Rev. Mitzi Bickers, who is a central figure in the federal investigation into Atlanta City Hall bribery. Hill hired Bickers to be one of his chaplains in October.

Chaplains in Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill’s office aren’t just expected to preach the word of God to inmates — the sheriff also wants them to carry the word of Victor Hill to potential voters.

Each of the three chaplains in the sheriff’s office are required to attend one funeral every week, during which they hand-deliver a form letter offering condolences signed by Hill. The chaplains often choose the funerals by randomly searching the internet for obituaries, according to emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In a Dec. 20 message, the sheriff made clear that chaplains visiting grieving families in the community is more important to him than ministering to prisoners.

“Reminder: Each chaplain is to attend one funeral in the county a week on my behalf,” Hill’s email says. “That funeral should have a letter signed from me to the family. You can read (it) if possible or just give it to the family on my behalf.”

Then, he added: "This is a priority to me. Criminals in jail are not."

George Scott got his letter from one of Hill’s chaplains on May 18, after his wife, Mary, passed.

“I’m not impressed by his letters,” Scott said when reached by phone at his Jonesboro home. “He’s politicking is all he’s doing.”

Emails examined by the AJC also suggest that Hill’s staff are using a taxpayer-funded public safety messaging service to build a database of residents that includes personal contact information and their voting precincts. The emails show that personal information from more than 28,000 Clayton residents was shared with one of Hill’s chaplains — and her political consulting company, which ran field operations for his 2012 campaign.

One expert told the AJC that could violate campaign finance law.

Hill is every bit as controversial as he is popular in Clayton County.

The self-proclaimed “CRIME FIGHTER” beat four challengers in the 2016 Democratic primary by getting 63 percent of the vote. He also beat 27 felony racketeering charges in 2013accidentally shot a girlfriend in the stomach while demonstrating his gun-handling technique on a date two years ago; and cost taxpayers more than $11 million in legal settlements during his two and a half terms in office.

The vast majority of settlement money went to 34 officers and employees fired on the first day of Hill’s first term, in January 2005. They were escorted out of the jail under heavy guard, with snipers stationed on the roof. All were eventually awarded back pay and offered their jobs back, although some had retired or moved on to new positions elsewhere.

Hill reinforced his ability to reach voters in October, when he hired into his chaplaincy program Rev. Mitzi Bickers — the political consultant who worked on his 2012 campaign, and helped Kasim Reed win the Atlanta mayor’s office with a sweeping get-out-the-vote effort in 2009.

The hire came three months after the U.S. Attorney’s Office turned its gaze toward Bickers in the Atlanta City Hall bribery investigation. Bickers has not been charged in the investigation.

Bickers’ Clayton County emails, turned over to federal prosecutors through a subpoena in February and obtained by the AJC through the Georgia Open Records Act, suggest the consultant has been mixing politics with her $37,000-a-year day job in the Hill administration.

Hill no longer speaks to the media, nor does he allow his officers to answer questions from the AJC. But the sheriff’s public outreach extends way past funeral homes and into a social media presence that few local politicians can match.

In April, Hill posted a Facebook video of himself pulling over a woman after she'd left a grocery store and surprising her with a $100 bill, which he called a "ticket." The video caption says a "wealthy Christian who has asked to remain anonymous gave 'THE CRIME FIGHTER' several hundred dollar bills to pass out to those who may be in need."

The clearly stunned woman emerged from her car and gave Hill a bear hug.

Sheriff collects residents’ data

The sheriff’s biggest tool for directly reaching the public is a messaging service called Nixle, which many governments use to send out alerts about severe weather, missing persons or criminal activity.

Purchased annually with county tax dollars, Nixle is a subscription service that sends text and email messages to about 40,000 people signed up for the sheriff’s feed. Nixle also posts the messages to Hill’s Facebook page.

Hill wrote on Facebook recently that a Nixle executive told him that the Clayton Sheriff’s Office has the highest percentage of subscribers per capita in the nation.

Almost every post mentions Hill’s name, whether they are about routine traffic accidents, arrests by other departments, or holiday greetings. Many boast of Hill’s accomplishments, and how tough he is on criminals.

"A Mother's Day message from the desk of Sheriff Victor Hill," says the May 14 Nixle post. "To answer the call of our mothers in need, I handpicked a group of elite deputies to create the Stalking Unit which embodies our motto that 'we defend those who cannot defend themselves' by stalking the stalkers."

Residents can sign up for Nixle alerts by sending a text message to the firm or an online application, and Nixle says agencies do not have access to users’ personal information.

But emails obtained by the AJC suggest that Hill’s staff may be obtaining phone numbers and names from residents, presumably to sign them up for Nixle. They also appear to have been combining residents’ personal information with demographic and voter data in a database entitled “Nixle Report.”

In emails reviewed by the AJC, reporters found spreadsheets with the names and phone numbers of 28,000 residents combined with information that would typically be obtained from voter registration databases and purchased by political campaigns.

A spokesman for Nixle’s parent company, Everbridge, said he is unsure how the sheriff’s office could have obtained the residents’ contact data.

Sign-ups for the alert system are typically handled by text or Nixle’s own web portal, he said, and agencies do not receive names or telephone numbers from the company. In fact, Nixle’s terms of service specifically bans that type of data collection.

"A county would not have access to this resident contact information" from Nixle, the company said in a statement released to the AJC.

Daily reports to Hill

Emails reviewed by the AJC show that chaplains and deputies with the sheriff’s Community Relations unit report daily to Hill on the number of new residents signed up to the Nixle service. New subscribers are sometimes solicited at tables set up outside of stores, government buildings, churches and university campuses, the emails show.

Hill even had tables soliciting Nixle sign-ups inside the courthouse during his 2013 racketeering trial.

Hill did not respond when asked if his officers are collecting the personal information when they sign up people to the service, or why they are collecting the information, as opposed to directing residents to the sign up through Nixle.

But a Dec. 28 email to Hill and the sheriff’s command staff announced the 40,000th Nixle sign-up, with a picture of the person after she was given flowers by sheriff’s office employees.

“All contact information for Ms. Ballard will be included in the daily stats email. Next goal, 50,000 by the end of summer 2017,” the email says.

According to Nixle’s terms of service, the creation of a separate database to communicate outside of the Nixle service is prohibited, and users are not allowed to “collect or store personal data of any user.” The service also does not allow messages for “political, commercial or advertising” purposes.

Data shared with consultant

The Nixle data was also shared between Bickers and an employee with her political consulting company, the emails show.

The spreadsheets are titled “Nixle Report” and list names, addresses, phone numbers, ethnicity and voting precincts for each person. It’s the type of information that is invaluable to a political campaign targeting specific areas of the community with direct mail, phone banks or automated calls.

The data appears to be merged with information from other sources, including voter rolls.

Neither Hill nor Bickers responded to multiple messages left for them, nor did the sheriff respond to questions emailed to him about the Nixle list and why Bickers was provided the information. A request to speak with the Sheriff’s public information officer was not granted.

Likewise, Bickers’ attorney in the bribery investigation did not respond to the AJC’s questions, including: Is Bickers’ company still working for Hill’s political campaign? Why was she given access to the Nixle information and did she pay for it? Has her company used the information in any other campaigns?

Rick Thompson, a former head of the state ethics commission who now consults with political campaigns, said Hill could likely justify his chaplains’ required attendance at funerals as constituent services, though having Bickers do so “raises eyebrows” because she worked for Hill’s campaign and is now on his payroll.

But using the Nixle system for political purposes could be a different matter. Political campaigns and PACs spend enormous sums to obtain voter contact information — particularly cellphone numbers. The sheriff’s office collecting that kind of information and providing it to Hill’s campaign could be an illegal “gift,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the state ethics commission routinely investigates whether politicians use their office for political advantage.

"If I were still at the commission I would want to look into that," said Thompson, who is a Nixle subscriber in his home county.

Outside work not disclosed

Bickers has had a close relationship with Hill since at least 2012, when her company ran field operations for his campaign at a time when more than two dozen felony charges hung over the sheriff’s head. She regularly attended Hill’s trial, at which he was acquitted of all charges including racketeering, theft by taking, making false statements and violating his oath of office.

Bickers’ Oct. 2 application for the job with Clayton County says that she heard about the position through the county’s job line. She listed her work experience as minister of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Atlanta, but left off her political consulting business and her previous work for the city of Atlanta.

Likewise, the application doesn’t mention the 10 years Bickers spent working on the Atlanta Board of Education, or being an officer with Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr.’s construction company. Mitchell is one of two contractors who have admitted to paying more than $1 million in exchange for city contracts.

The bribes were paid to an unnamed third person, who then shared a portion of the money with influential city officials, according to federal prosecutors.

Bickers also has not been required to follow departmental policy as it relates to her outside work in political consulting.

Sheriff’s office policy requires employees to apply for and receive permission for secondary employment, even if it’s in a company owned by the employee.

The AJC requested copies of Bickers’ application to work elsewhere, and the sheriff’s office could produce no such record.

Hill did not respond when asked why Bickers was not required to follow his departmental policy.

The chaplains’ routine

The emails examined by the AJC show that the three chaplains in Hill’s office do perform clergy work at the jail. Each chaplain is required to write an email telling Hill what they did during the day.

Bickers’ routine — in addition to obituary searches, attending funerals and Nixle sign-ups — includes counseling inmates and staff; distributing Bibles and other religious materials to inmates; along with responding to email and phone messages. She also organized Hill’s prayer breakfast with members of the Clayton clergy in January.

In November, emails show Bickers and other department employees rallied around a young inmate who gave birth to a stillborn child.

But the emails also suggest Bickers mixed her public and political work, and some of that included sharing Nixle data with her political consulting business.

On Jan. 17, Bickers received a series of four emails during the work day relating to campaigning that her firm, Pirouette Strategies, handled for South Fulton mayoral candidate Bill Edwards.

Edwards won that race and was sworn in as the new city's inaugural mayor in April.

Documents attached to the emails show poll results from automated phone calls, door-to-door poll results, and proposed poll questions “for edit.” Carl Johnson, the person who emailed those documents to Bickers’ public account, also sent several versions of the Nixle database to Bickers.

Edwards acknowledged to the AJC that he hired Bickers’ company for his campaign and was aware of the polling Pirouette did for him. But Edwards said he did not know that some of those emails were sent to Bickers’ Clayton County email address during business hours.

“Under no circumstances would that be acceptable in the new city of South Fulton,” Edwards said of private work being performed on the public’s time. “I was not involved in that in any way.”

A controversial sheriff

Jan. 1, 2005: Victor Hill assumed the office of sheriff and terminated 27 employees, having them escorted from the building with snipers posted on the roof.

Aug. 5, 2008: Hill lost the Democratic primary to Kem Kimbrough by less than 1,000 votes. He stops coming to the office.

Dec. 30, 2008: Hill files for bankruptcy, listing as debts the judgments owed as a result of lawsuits brought by employees and others. He leaves office the next day.

Jan. 18, 2012 : Hill is indicted on four counts of racketeering, 29 counts of theft by taking, two counts of making a false statement and one count each of violation of oath of a public officer and influencing a witness. Prosecutors say he used his office and his campaign money for himself.

Aug. 21, 2012: Hill defeats Kimbrough in the Democratic primary runoff, with 54 percent of the vote.

Oct. 16, 2012: Clayton judge Albert Collier dismisses five of 32 felony charges against Hill, writing that it is unclear who owns the 2008 campaign funds so Hill cannot be charged with improperly spending them.

Nov. 6, 2012: Hill wins the general election and resumes office Jan. 1.

Aug. 14, 2013: Hill is acquitted of 27 felony charges.

May 13, 2015: Hill accidentally shoots a friend while showing her "police tactics" during a date.

May 24, 2016: Hill wins a third term as sheriff with 63 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

March 2017: The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council places Hill’s law enforcement certification on probation for two years. The decision does not affect Hill’s status as sheriff, but does require him to take new courses on firearms training and ethics.

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