Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill has used $300,000 of his department’s budget to settle a false-arrest lawsuit against him that had pushed him into personal bankruptcy. It’s a judgment the county had refused to pay when a federal jury ruled against Hill in 2008, during his first term in office.
Now that Hill is back in office, he’s using money that would otherwise pay for sheriff’s office personnel to pay off the judgment. Hill will leave six correctional officer positions at the jail open for a year to make up for the$300,000 expenditure, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.
Local officials say state law gives Hill, as sheriff, unrestricted discretion over how he spends the sheriff’s office budget.
“The citizens of Clayton County elected him as sheriff. He has every right to do what he sees fit with his budget,” said Clayton County resident Henry Anderson.
But not everyone thinks Hill should use taxpayer money to settle the lawsuit.
“He shouldn’t be using county money. That’s the county’s money,” said Riverdale resident Sam Carr.
Hill was acquitted Aug. 15 of 27 felony charges, on allegations that he had used Sheriff’s Office assets and personnel for personal benefit during his first term, 2005-2008.
As he was preparing to go on trial last spring, Hill set the process in motion to settle the earlier, unrelated, lawsuit.
On Aug. 23, a check for $300,000 was issued to Mark Tuggle.
The false-arrest lawsuit Tuggle had brought was one of several filed against Hill during his first term. One of them was for $7 million, of which the county’s insurance provider paid $5 million. According to the Clayton County Law Department, the deductible on the county’s insurance at the time Tuggle sued Hill was $750,000.
The county declined to cover the $462,000 judgment, which includes legal fees, in the Tuggle suit, however. So Hill listed the obligation on his petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, filed on Dec. 30, 2008.
Neither Hill nor his spokeswoman returned messages seeking comment on Wednesday, but the president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association said it’s not uncommon for sheriffs to be sued — usually by jail inmates — and for taxpayers or the county’s insurance to cover the cost if the case was related to official actions.
Attorney Winston Denmark, who negotiated the settlement for Hill, said the lawsuit was against Hill individually and against the office, which was why county money could be used to pay the settlement.
Neither Tuggle nor his attorney could be reached for comment, but the settlement includes a a restriction on public comment on the suit.
Hill has been controversial since his first day as sheriff on Jan. 1, 2005, and he moved quickly respond to his critics; one of them was Tuggle, who was angry that Hill had fired 27 deputies and had them escorted from the property as sharpshooters were posted on the rooftop.
Tuggle called the Sheriff’s Office twice over two days, leaving messages each time.
In the first message Tuggle said, “I’d like to get an appointment with that little, short lil’ (expletive) sheriff of y’all’s.” The second time, speaking to a captain, Tuggle referred to Hill as “scum.”
Tuggle was arrested on Jan. 4, 2005, on a misdemeanor charge of making harassing phone calls, and he spent almost 24 hours in jail, during which his blood pressure reached “stroke” range, according to testimony. The solicitor dismissed the case the next day, saying two calls were not enough to justify a charge of harassing telephone calls.
Tuggle filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful arrest in February 2006, and the jury reached a verdict in September 2008.
Hill filed for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy on Dec. 30, 2008, the day before his last day in office. His petition listed a $665,000 civil judgment to Tuggle; the discrepancy between the amount on his bankruptcy petition and the jury’s award, $462,000 including legal costs, was not explained.
Records show that Hill and Tuggle agreed in June to settle the case for $300,000. The federal court had been garnishing Hill’s salary, to get $462,374, since he took office Jan. 1, 2013.
Hill wrote the county commissioners June 28 requesting the issuance of a check for $300,000 “from the funds budgeted me … This is not a request for permission to settle the case or for approval of the settlement amount,” Hill wrote. “Once a county adopts a budget for the sheriff, as an elected constitutional officer, the decision on how to spend the funds allocated falls solely to the sheriff … and the county commission may not dictate how the budget will be spent.”
On Aug. 2, three days before Hill went to trial on the criminal charges, Shawn Sutherland, the assistant chief deputy, wrote a memo to the county’s chief financial officer requesting that a check be cut.
“We have been given a small window of opportunity to handle this matter at the reduced settlement figure,” Sutherland wrote. “We don’t want us to miss this opportunity to settle this matter and (not) incur unnecessary additional expenses.”
According to the agreement, Tuggle will have the civil case dropped and Hill will remove the arrest and charges from Tuggle’s criminal record.
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