By Daniel Silliman
A candidate for Clayton County Sheriff is accusing the current sheriff of paying for campaign billboards with public funds.
Ernest Strozier, a lieutenant at the College Park Police Department, accused Sheriff Victor Hill of an ethics violation at a press conference Monday, and said he was going to formally request an investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State.
Strozier and his campaign manager, Michael Murphy, said Hill has been paying for campaign billboards with money seized by the sheriff's joint vice task force.
"This is an ethics violation," Strozier said. "It's a waste of taxpayers money."
The campaign's open records requests for financial documents relating to the billboards -- some of which bear explicit election messages and some of which focus on Hill's Quality of Life Campaign -- went unfilled. Murphy was repeatedly told the documents he requested were "under review" by attorneys, he said.
The campaign then filed an open records request with the Morrow Police Department, the second half of the sheriff's joint vice task force. The campaign asked for financial records relating to the task force, and received about 50 pages of heavily redacted documents, according to campaign staff members.
Strozier turned four pages of those documents over to the media Monday, calling it "disturbing information."
One check stub shows the Morrow Police Department paid $31,000.06 to Clear Channel for a public safety announcement. The company reportedly owns at least some of the billboards bearing the sheriff's messages. Another check stub records $21,900 paid to World Express, last December, for "crime prevention mail out per Hill CCSO." Strozier said he believes the company prints the sheriff's newsletter. The State Ethics Commission ruled last November that a Hill newsletter was in violation of Georgia's ethics code, because it used county funds and included campaign information.
"He's misappropriating funds," Strozier said. "It's unethical and borders on illegal."
Neither Hill, his public information officer, nor Morrow Police Chief Jeff Baker returned phone calls seeking comment.
Hill told television reporters he's proud of the billboards and he downplayed Strozier as someone who "just wants to get on TV."
Baker reportedly told television reporters that campaign billboards were totally separate from public service announcement, Quality of Life Campaign, billboards, and were paid for separately.
The billboards are all dark blue, featuring the sheriff's yellow star on one side and his photograph on the other, with the message written in large, blocky, white letters. Strozier said the billboards are part of Hill's political campaign and "undeniably similar."
Hill lists the joint vice task force and the Quality of Life Campaign as accomplishments on his campaign web site. The campaign web site says Hill is running on the platform of cleaning up the county, has a picture of the Quality of Life Campaign billboard, and an outline of the program.
Strozier, one of five people seeking to unseat Hill, is running on a platform of qualifications and experience, citing his 21 years in public safety in College Park. The election is scheduled for July.