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Civil Service Board clears Cassells

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Civil Service Board has ruled that Sheriff Victor Hill was wrong to fire his former chief deputy.

After the fourth day of a drawn-out appeal hearing, the board overturned Hill's firing of William "Tee" Cassells, and ordered Hill to reinstate Cassells to the sheriff's office as a sergeant, his last position before being appointed as second-in-command.

"My name's been cleared," said Cassells, "and I'm very pleased with that. I didn't lie, and we basically proved that the sheriff ... was lying."

According to Cassells' attorney, Debra Schwartz, Hill was caught lying to the media and the grand jury, and used his chief deputy as a "fall guy" and "scapegoat."

In November 2006, a Clayton County grand jury's presentment recommended that the sheriff's office stop paying a volunteer choir overtime for practicing and singing. Hill said he wasn't paying overtime to the choir, and then expanded that statement, saying the choir had never been paid overtime, and had never been paid.

When documents were leaked to the media in November 2006 showing choir members were paid overtime to practice about a year before, Hill called a press conference and accused Cassells of intentionally lying to him, causing him to go to the grand jury and the media and make false statements.

"He embarrassed himself on TV," Cassells testified. "He had to blame it on somebody, so he decided to blame it on me."

Cassells said he told Hill the office was not paying the choir overtime at the time the grand jury asked the question, but didn't say anything about past practices, because the sheriff knew about them.

"The chief was asked, 'Are we paying the choir overtime?' The operative word is 'paying,' present tense. The answer to that question is, 'no,' and the chief said, 'no,'" Schwartz told the board.

Testimony at the Civil Service Board Hearing showed Hill knew the choir had been paid overtime and had told employees, during one day's roll call, that he was the sheriff, and could, and would, pay the choir as he saw fit.

Testimony showed that, contrary to Hill's sworn statements about being too busy with politics to pay attention to details in the sheriff's office, he is directly involved with all operations. Some choir overtime approvals were signed "per sheriff Hill."

Generally, the testimony characterized Hill as someone who did not tolerate disagreement, would not change his mind, and would not listen to anyone.

Cassells, under cross-examination during the hearing, told the Civil Service Board that he, as the second-in-command, had no role in making decisions and would just do what Hill said.

"I followed and carried out any order he gave," said Cassells. "I never presented any disagreement, because there was no point, because he'd already made up his mind."

During cross-examination, the sheriff's attorney, Josh Viau, attempted to argue that Cassells had a history of lying.

Viau asked Cassells if he hadn't lied about why he was late for a sergeants exam in 1998; hadn't falsely claimed he was the county's first African-American sheriff's deputy; and hadn't said a hallway in the county jail was a mile when it wasn't.

After objections from Schwartz, the line of questioning was ruled irrelevant.

Viau tried to show that the former chief deputy was prone to lie, and had lied to Hill repeatedly about the choir. He argued that Cassells was offered the chance to retire instead of being fired, and lied saying he was going to retire, and then refused to fill out the paperwork.

At one point, the lawyer asked Cassells what he had told an internal investigator, about what he told a polygraph examiner, about what he told the sheriff.

"I just said, 'OK,'" the former chief deputy replied. "[The sheriff] had said that it'd be best if I retired. We had just had a strong argument, and if I had said anything, we would have had another argument and that would mean more charges thrown on me, so I just said, 'OK.'"

According to testimony presented at the hearing, Hill often reacted strongly to criticism and was fond of repeating the phrase, "I am the sheriff." He told his employees he would not stand any interference, or meddling from outside agencies, including the Civil Service Board, the grand jury, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, and state and federal courts. Hill's own legal advisor had testified that the sheriff systematically ignored rulings of the Civil Service Board.

The advisor has since resigned.

"This county can no longer tolerate Victor Hill's power trip, no longer allow him to lie with impunity," Schwartz said in her closing statement. "It's up to this board to do what no one else has done in the last 40 months, and that is, stand up to Sheriff Victor Hill."

Cassells does not expect the sheriff to follow Tuesday's ruling, and will consider appealing again. Right now, Cassells and Schwartz have a federal case pending against the sheriff.