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Sheriff accused of retaliation, intimidation

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The second-in-command at the Clayton County Sheriff's Office has filed a formal complaint accusing Sheriff Victor Hill of retaliation and creating a hostile work environment.

Chief Deputy Mark Harris filed the grievance with the Clayton County Personnel Department, saying he was facing retaliation for his testimony at a recent Civil Service Board hearing.

Harris was subpoenaed by the sheriff's legal council to appear at the hearing, where the chief deputy before Harris, William "Tee" Cassells, is appealing his firing. Harris alleges that when he, the current second-in-command, didn't say what the sheriff wanted him to say about the previous second-in-command, he was demoted.

According to Harris' formal complaint, he was not given a reason for the demotion, as is required.

"I'm being retaliated against for my testimony at a civil service hearing about Chief Cassells, along with not agreeing with the way [Hill] discipline's people," Harris wrote.

A sheriff's office personnel order, dated March 24 and signed by Victor Hill, demotes Harris to "his original civil service rank" and orders him to report to a major who was previously his subordinate. Harris is requesting the Civil Service Board restore him to the second-in-command spot and pay him his back pay.

The board is currently preparing to hear the fourth day of testimony in Cassells' grievance case, and Cassells' request to be restored to the No. 2 spot at the sheriff's office.

Cassells was fired in August on allegations he paid overtime to volunteer choir members, and then allegedly lied about it to the sheriff. Cassells is appealing the firing, saying he was a "scapegoat" and a "fall guy," because the sheriff allegedly got caught lying to the media and the grand jury.

Debra Schwartz, the attorney representing Cassells, has accused the sheriff of carrying out a campaign of intimidation through personnel orders. During every day of the extended hearing, she has reported to the Civil Service Board that another witness was demoted, or transferred to a less desirable shift.

In the same March 24 personnel order demoting the office's second-in-command, Hill reassigned Capt. Ronald Gardiner to courthouse protection, and his probationary period was extended by six months. Gardiner was under subpoena to testify at the Cassells hearing when he received the order, which he believes was meant as a warning.

"I am afraid," the captain wrote in a grievance, "I will be retaliated against due to my testimony at the ... civil service hearing regarding the firing of prior Chief Deputy Cassells."

Three days later, in another personnel memo, Gardiner was demoted to lieutenant and transferred to the graveyard shift. Gardiner "received notification by personnel order of demotion to lieutenant & transfer to jail on night shift (permanent) two days after testimony in civil service hearing," he wrote in his second complaint, filed the same week.

Before being demoted, Gardiner was in charge of the choir. The choir was paid overtime, a practice the sheriff denied when it was criticized by a grand jury. When information was released to the media confirming overtime payment to the choir in 2005, Hill blamed Cassells, and accused the 25-year veteran of repeatedly lying. Gardiner testified, under oath, the sheriff knew the choir was being paid overtime, but didn't have a problem with it until it was publicly exposed.

Johnette Colquitt, a sergeant who sang in the choir and received overtime, also testified the sheriff knew about, and authorized, the overtime, contrary to his statements to the media -- and under oath.

She told the Civil Service Board she had a confrontation with the sheriff in his office, where he "threw a tantrum," because she told him he authorized the choir's overtime pay, not Cassells. She said Hill had told her "he runs the sheriff's office regardless of what anybody else says," and had "thrown a tantrum" about "people talking too much and running to the Civil Service Board."

About a month before Colquitt testified at the hearing, after she had received a subpoena requiring her to appear, she was demoted four pay grades.

She was demoted from sergeant to correctional officer, according to a personnel order signed by Hill. She was told it was because she had lost a half-written memo three months before and had never followed up with another memo, according to Personnel Department records.

She has also filed a formal complaint citing a hostile work environment.

"I have been unfairly, unjustly and wrongfully demoted," Colquitt wrote in her appeal, "due to retaliation on behalf of political or personal views."

While Hill was testifying on the first day of the Cassells hearing, a sheriff's office employee who attended the hearing, but wasn't called to testify, was told, during lunch, that she was going to be transferred to nights. The woman, Schwartz said, is a single mother.

Hill told the Civil Service Board he knew nothing of the transfer, since he was at the hearing, and he adamantly denied the transfer was retaliatory. He said that, even though he signed the order, he would have to check with his administrative staff for details, but he believed the transfer was probably in the works for a while.

On the second day of the hearing, the sheriff's chief legal advisor, R. Andres Marierose, testified that the sheriff has systematically ignored the rulings of the Civil Service Board, saying he would appeal them but, in practice, doing whatever he wanted to do. After the hearing and after Marierose's statements were reported in Clayton News Daily, the attorney resigned, according to Personnel Department records.

On the third day of the hearing, the proceedings were tape recorded by an investigator from the sheriff's Internal Affairs unit.

Schwartz protested, saying the recording was going to be used for retaliation.

"I've got a real intimidation issue here," she said.

Schwartz repeated her allegation that Victor Hill was systematically threatening, intimidating and punishing employees who were called to testify at the hearing. The Civil Service Board's legal council said the recording had to be allowed because the meeting was public, but some board members asked for a guarantee the tapes weren't being used against sheriff's office employees.

The attorney representing the sheriff's office in the hearing, Josh Viau, said the claim the demotions and transfers are retaliatory is nothing but speculation and unfounded allegation.

"I've given you my assurance," Viau said to the Civil Service Board. "This is not happening."