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Sheriff Hill testifies in firing of former chief deputy

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Called before the Clayton County Civil Service Board, Sheriff Victor Hill testified for more than three hours, explaining why he fired his chief deputy last year.

William "Tee" Cassells served as the sheriff's second-in-command from the day Hill took office in the beginning of 2005 until November 2006, when it was revealed the sheriff's office had paid overtime to members of a department choir. Hill said Cassells had repeatedly lied to him about the choir, leading him to believe overtime had never been paid.

Cassells' attorney argued that the 25-year veteran of the office was actually fired because Hill, caught misusing taxpayers' money, needed someone to blame. "Apparently realizing that he was going to get caught in this lie, Sheriff Hill concocted a story," Debra Schwartz told the board in her opening statement Wednesday.

"There was no good reason for the sheriff to fire Chief Cassells. Instead, he made a decision that he needed a scapegoat, he needed a fall guy, because he had lied," Schwartz said.

Hill's attorney, Josh Viau, argued that Cassells deserved to be fired, because he betrayed the sheriff's trust. During his opening statement to the board, Viau said Cassells lied four times about whether the choir had been paid overtime, causing Hill to give false information to a county grand jury and two media press conferences. Viau said Cassells had lied twice more, before he was fired, saying he would take his retirement, and then saying he never said that.

Cassells has asked the Civil Service Board to overrule his firing and reinstate him at the sheriff's office.

Cassells, looking calm in his long, chocolate-brown suit, watched as Hill took the stand and leaned into the microphone.

Hills' lawyer led him through a brief statement, with questions and answers, large portions of which matched word-for-word his interview -- obtained by the Clayton News Daily through an open records request -- with internal affairs, during its investigation of Cassells. Hills' testimony was:

· He didn't know the choir was being paid overtime,

· He didn't know the choir was being paid at all, and knew very little about the choir, because he leaves almost all details to his staff,

· In general, he knows very few details of the operations at the sheriff's office, delegating tasks while he deals with politics and setting the office's vision,

· Cassells was in charge of all "day-to-day operations," including the volunteer choir,

· He never gave Cassells permission to pay the choir,

· He never gave Cassells permission to place the choir under the Honor Guard, to be commanded and paid like the Honor Guard,

· He wrongly trusted Cassells,

· Cassells lied to him.

According to Sheriff's Office documents, Cassells was fired for a long list of wrongdoings, including charging a parking fee to the office and speaking to a Clayton News Daily reporter about the allegations against him without first getting permission from the sheriff. During cross examination, however, Hill said he didn't know much about those allegations and, in fact, fired Cassells because of the alleged lies. He repeatedly referred to the lies and said, "That's why we're here."

During the long cross-examination, Hill and Schwartz fought constantly. Schwartz demanded the sheriff directly answer her questions, but Hill was evasive. He repeated previous rehearsed statements, answered questions with questions, went into extended narrative answers to yes-or-no questions and demanded to be allowed to explain rather than simply answer.

Twice, during the hearing, Hill asked his attorney to object and demanded that he be allowed to explain. Once, when pressured by the board to just answer a question, Hill accused the board of being "rude" and "unconstitutional."

"I'm going to repeatedly ask you to answer my questions," Schwartz told Hill. "If you continue to evade my questions and give 10-minute dissertations on irrelevant subjects, we will be here not one, not two, not three days, but all week."

"I'm not being evasive," Hill said. "You've been spinning around all day on topics that don't even relate to why we're here. We're here because former chief Cassells lied, and lied repeatedly ... Your questions are misleading, which is why I have to explain."

Most of Schwartz' questions went to what Hill knew about the choir and the overtime pay -- and when he knew it.

Hill answered most of Schwartz' questions with statements that seemed to contain neither affirmative statements nor denials. Asked if he ever authorized overtime pay, Hill said, "I would of never authorized overtime for the choir."

At one point, the vice chair of the Civil Service Board, Troyce Landcaster, pushed for clarification. "Mr. Hill," she said, "is that a yes-or-no answer?"

Hill replied, "That's an answer."

The hearing was paused Wednesday evening, and is set to continue later this month.