Victor Hill trial delayed, possibly up to a year

Victor Hill, the Democratic nominee for Clayton County sheriff, will take office under felony indictment if he survives election day. That’s because his criminal trial, which was set to start next month, has been delayed, possibly for up to a year.

If Hill defeats a write-in candidate — he faces no Republican opposition — and is sworn into office, Gov. Nathan Deal will be asked to remove him from office until the criminal case can be resolved.

“What we hope will happen is that the governor will suspend him on the day he takes office,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

Hill, who served as Clayton County sheriff in 2005-2008, was indicted last January on 37 felony charges — including four counts of racketeering — that accuse him of using his office and his 2008 re-election campaign funds for his personal benefit.

Last week, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier dismissed five charges — two racketeering and three theft by taking charges involving campaign money. He said the theft charges are unwarranted because the funds belong to Hill and there is no victim. Misuse of campaign funds, which could be an alternative to the theft charges, is a misdemeanor, Collier wrote, and a racketeering charge requires at least two felony counts to support it.

Prosecutors filed notice that they will appeal that decision Thursday, causing the trial, scheduled for Nov. 26, to be delayed because new hearings are required.

Layla Zon, the special assistant district attorney prosecuting Hill, said the Georgia Court of Appeals needs to decide if Collier’s ruling is correct, because she think it sets a precedent for what candidates can do with campaign money.

“A candidate can raise as much as they want and they can take it and it’s a misdemeanor?” Zon said. “It’s a principle of law that we believe needs to be examined.”

One of Hill’s three attorneys, Musa Ghanayem, said the decision to appeal suggests there was no case and prosecutors are stalling.

“Without the five counts that were dismissed by the judge, their case was gutted like a fish,” Ghanayem said.

Zon said she was ready for trial but she would not be pressured by politics and a deadline of Jan. 1, when a new Clayton County sheriff takes office.

Georgia law says the governor can remove a sheriff by first appointing a committee consisting of two sheriffs and the attorney general to determine if a troubled sheriff should be suspended. Even if the panel recommends removal, the decision is up to the governor.

A Deal spokeswoman said the governor would make a decision only if Hill assumes the office of sheriff.

“I think there is nothing in place to prevent him from taking office,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the sheriffs association.

Hill’s four years as sheriff were peppered with controversy.

On his first day in office in 2005, he fired 27 employees and had them escorted from the building, where snipers had been positioned on the roof. A judge ordered them reinstated after they sued and won.

Hill stopped coming to the office after he lost the 2008 Democratic primary to Kem Kimbrough. He filed for personal bankruptcy two days after his term ended on Jan. 1, 2009, and a trustee is still overseeing the repayment of his debts.