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Fired Sheriff's chief deputy returns to work

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

William "Tee" Cassells is scheduled to show up for work at the Clayton County Sheriff's Office at 6 a.m., Tuesday, a week after the county's Civil Service Board overturned his firing, seven months after he was fired, and about a year and a half after the sheriff publicly called him a liar.

Cassells has been reinstated to the Sheriff's Department as a sergeant, his rank before Sheriff Victor Hill appointed him chief deputy in January 2005. Cassells' attorney, Debra Schwartz, said he has been told he will be on the day shift and in field operations.

Cassells was fired during a scandal involving overtime paid to members of a volunteer choir. After a grand jury presentment criticized the practice, Hill said choir members weren't being compensated, were only singing because they loved to sing the gospel, and said they had never been paid overtime. When documents emerged showing the choir had been paid overtime about a year before the grand jury presentment, Hill accused Cassells, then his chief deputy, of intentionally misleading him.

Cassells appealed the firing and the county's Civil Service Board approved the appeal last week. Cassells, who has worked for the sheriff's office since 1982, said he just wanted to clear his name.

Schwartz said returning to work on Tuesday morning is a part of that process.

Cassells' fight with the man who once made him second-in-command is not yet over, though. There is a federal suit against the sheriff and Clayton County seeking damages for libel, defamation and the violation of Cassells' constitutionally-protected freedom of speech.

After Hill said Cassells had lied, a Clayton News Daily reporter contacted Cassells and asked him for his side of the story. Cassells said there was a misunderstanding that would be straightened out later. The conversation, as quoted in the Clayton News Daily, was listed as one of the reasons Cassells was fired, in sheriff's office documents.

The federal suit was filed in November, arguing that the sheriff's actions violated the First Amendment's guarantee of Cassells' right to free speech.

The sheriff's office's rules and regulations, like the rules and regulations of most area law enforcement agencies, forbid employees from speaking to the media without prior approval from the sheriff or the chief deputy. Schwartz believes the section is in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The suit also argues that Hill's statements to the media at the time of the choir-pay scandal were "false, defamatory and disparaging ... calculated to injure," intended to impeach Cassells' character and expose him to "hate, contempt, ridicule and obloquy." It also claims Hill made the statements "with knowledge that they were false .. with reckless disregard for the falsity."

The sheriff's attorney filed an answer to the complaint in federal court on Friday. The answer cites 21 legal defenses of Hill's actions, and gives paragraph-by-paragraph denials of the claims in the lawsuit.

The answer, filed by Attorney Joshua Viau, states that Hill's statements were "true, substantially true, or the statement of opinion," and that he "has at all times acted in accord with and in good faith compliance with applicable law. [Hill] has neither intentionally nor willfully violated [Cassells'] rights in any manner or acted maliciously or negligently ... [Hill] has not acted with malice or reckless indifference."

The county, also named in the suit, is expected to file an answer on May 2.

Depositions could begin this summer, Schwartz said.