Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill got some good news as well as some disappointing news Friday in the final pretrial hearing just three days before the start of jury selection for his racketeering case.
First, prosecutors dropped four theft charges, leaving 28 of the original 37 counts that accuse Hill of using his office for personal gain. Hill was charged with theft in those four counts for allegedly assigning on-duty staff to work at two campaign fundraisers in 2007. The events were too far in the past to be included in the indictment returned in January 2012, after the four-year statute of limitations had run out.
Then Clayton Superior Court Judge Albert Collier said two former Sheriff’s Office employees, both facing their own criminal charges stemming from their years with Hill, will be allowed to testify with immunity. That agreement, however, only applies to anything they say in the Hill trial and will not affect the criminal charges already pending against them. The grant of immunity allows the judge to find former Sheriff’s Office employee Beatrice Powell and one-time Hill spokesman Jonathan Newton in contempt if they refuse to answer questions in Hill’s trial.
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“There have been no deals made,” said Special Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon, the DA in Walton and Newton counties who is prosecuting Hill. “They are still currently charged.”
The rest of Collier’s decisions on Friday were mixed.
Hill cannot wear his uniform nor bring his gun to court, but he can wear his badge. “After all, he is the sheriff,” Collier said.
Until the trial is over, Hill must stop the automated phone calls to Clayton County residents that offer greetings from the sheriff or provide information on alerts or lookouts for missing children or senior citizens.
At the same time, Collier said, Hill can continue to post employees to the lobby of the courthouse where they solicit passers-by to subscribe to a free cellphone alert system that ends messages by crediting the sheriff.
Finally, Collier said, Sheriff’s Office employees who want to watch the trial can wear their uniforms as long as they “act appropriately.”
There were several Sheriff’s Office employees in uniform or with badges hanging from chains around their necks in the rows behind Hill in court Friday, among them the two men in charge when Hill is away.
The only matter left unresolved until Monday, when prospective jurors will report, is whether Zon can use the details from the five counts dismissed last fall to show a pattern of behavior. Collier dismissed two racketeering and three theft by taking charges concerning Hill’s use of campaign money because, Collier said, Hill could not be accused of stealing from his own campaign because that was no different from taking money from himself.
Hill has denied he is guilty of any of the charges — two counts of racketeering, 22 counts of theft by taking, two counts of making a false statement and one count each of violation of oath and influencing a witness.
The case centers on Hill’s first term in office, Jan. 1, 2005-Dec. 31, 2008, and his use of county-owned cars and county-issued credit cards. The indictment says taxpayers covered the costs of getaways, sometimes with Powell, to a cabin in the North Georgia mountains and to South Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina. The indictment said he billed the county for gas, for lodging and for shopping.
Hill also is accused of requiring Newton to write his biography when Newton was supposed to be working for the county and for allegedly arranging for Newton to get a kickback from the printer that delivered a newsletter about Hill.