Sheriff Victor Hill JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia governor leery of removing sheriffs

Amid calls that Clayton County Sheriff-elect Victor Hill be suspended after taking office, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show Georgia governors have been reluctant to exercise their authority to oust sheriffs who run into ethical or legal trouble.

Since 2004, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has asked a governor at least six times to suspend a sheriff who has either been charged with a crime or who has faced ethics charges, according to association documents. Only once has a governor agreed with the association and begun the legal process to suspend a sheriff.

Now the sheriffs’ group is asking Gov. Nathan Deal to begin the process of suspending Hill, who will take office next month despite 32 felony charges that allege he committed crimes the first time he was Clayton’s sheriff, Jan. 1, 2005-Dec. 31, 2008. The indictment came more than three years after Hill left the job.

Deal’s spokeswoman has said repeatedly the governor will do nothing until Hill becomes Clayton’s sheriff again.

The sheriffs’ group is hoping it will beat the odds and win Hill’s removal. “We’re the sheriffs. We’re the ones who put people in jail for doing wrong,” said Georgia Sheriffs’ Association President Howard Sills, the sheriff in Putnam County.

Hill’s supporters and defenders are hoping otherwise. “We feel confident that whoever reviews the case for the governor will see right through this,” said Drew Findling, one of Hill’s criminal defense attorneys. “You can’t ignore the racial element of their recommendation. It’s a complete slap in the face … of the African-Americans in Clayton County.”

Hill is black and most of the people living in Clayton are African-American.

According to Georgia law, the governor must appoint the attorney general and two people holding the same office as the indicted official — in this case a sheriff — to review the circumstances and then recommend whether the accused office-holder should be suspended with pay while the criminal case is pending. The governor is bound by a committee’s recommendation to do nothing, but has discretion if the panel recommends suspension.

There’s an additional law that applies when seeking a sheriff’s suspension, one specifically for office-holders who are accused of moral turpitude, said Sills.

But despite those laws, the sheriffs’ association has difficulty in getting a sitting governor to respond to its requests.

Last February the association asked Deal to name a committee to review the circumstances of former Wilcox County Sheriff Stacy Bloodsworth. That was the third time such a request had been made concerning Bloodsworth. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue did not respond to the first letter, dated Sept. 16, 2010. Deal refused their second request on Jan. 19, 2011, that he appoint a committee to look at Bloodsworth as well as the Talbot County sheriff, who also was facing criminal allegations.

“Given that the ultimate results of such an investigation include the possibility of suspending the sheriff who is a locally elected official, the threshold for initiating such an investigation … is necessarily high,” Deal’s lawyer wrote the Sheriffs’ Association. “We do not believe it is appropriate for this office to take action at this time.”

The third request came the day a federal grand jury indicted Bloodsworth for violating his oath of office by beating an inmate and then lying about it.

The last time the association moved against a sitting sheriff in metro Atlanta was in 2004. Jackie Barrett, Fulton County’s sheriff at the time, was being investigated for losing $2 million from investments of funds from tax auctions and for receiving excessive campaign donations from businessmen who benefited from those investments. Rather than be removed from office, Barrett asked the governor to suspend her, and she was paid for the final six months of her third term. She was never charged with anything.

Also:

• James Robert “Bobby” Womack of Jenkins County was accused of using inmate labor at his logging business, at his house and to maintain rental property. Perdue named a committee in 2004. Before the committee reported back, however, Womack resigned, citing poor health. He died three months later.

• Robert Henry Smith of Coffee County was indicted in 2006 for using a truck intended for law enforcement for other purposes and for using inmates to make political signs. But a committee was not named. Two weeks after he was indicted, Smith pleaded guilty and then resigned.

• Bill Smith of Camden County was the subject of federal and state criminal investigations into reports inmates built an addition to a private home and he donated sheriff’s office money to charities and various colleges and universities. Perdue didn’t respond to the sheriffs’ association’s letter in 2008, but Smith was not re-elected that year. Ultimately, federal prosecutors declined to bring charges, and by that time the statute of limitations had run out on any state charges that could be brought.

• Herman Howard of Talbot County was accused in 2010 of accepting bribes and providing a forged certificate showing he had received a general educational development diploma. The association asked Perdue to appoint a committee in 2010, then made the same request of Deal in 2011. Perdue didn’t respond, and Deal declined for the same reason he declined in Bloodsworth’s case. An FBI agent later testified in court that Howard would have been charged with taking bribes had he not died of a heart attack.

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