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Sheriff accused of bullying federal witnesses

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A former chief deputy has expanded his federal lawsuit against the Clayton County sheriff to include allegations of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice.

William "Tee" Cassells filed suit against Sheriff Victor Hill in November, after he was fired in the middle of a scandal about an all-volunteer choir getting paid overtime.

Hill publicly called his second-in-command a liar and then, when Cassells told a Clayton News Daily reporter that there must be some misunderstanding, Hill fired Cassells on the grounds that all public comments made by sheriff's office employees have to be cleared by the sheriff.

In a civil suit in federal court, Cassells claims the policy and the firing undermine his constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. He also claims the sheriff libeled and defamed him, during public comments made during the choir controversy.

A few days before a primary election, Cassells filed an amendment to his federal complaint, adding new grievances to what is now a long list.

The amended complaint claims Hill has been trying to get around the federal hearing by bullying witnesses into silence.

"Hill, in concert with his agents and representatives, has intimidated key witnesses by suspending, demoting or terminating their employment in order to dissuade them from testifying," the suit claims.

According to the federal court filing, eight sheriff's office employees suffered reprisals after they testified truthfully at a civil service board hearing.

During the hearing, which happened over four, non-consecutive days, witnesses were allegedly demoted during lunch hour. After showing up under subpoena, a single mother was transferred to the graveyard shift, and the second-in-command, who replaced Cassells, said he feared he'd be punished for his testimony -- and then, was demoted.

According to county records, everyone who testified at Cassells' civil service hearing was demoted, transferred to a less-desirable shift or resigned, a short time later.

Hill, questioned by the civil service board, said he knew nothing about the orders and said they were unrelated to anything having to do with the former second-in-command.

Most of the same people have been called to testify at the federal hearing, so Cassells is claiming the allegedly retaliatory action is a federal crime -- witness tampering.

The sheriff's attorneys have not yet responded to the allegations.