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Fired chief deputy recalls Sheriff Hill's 'threats, lies'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill vowed he would disgrace his chief deputy, his chief deputy testified during a Tuesday hearing appealing his firing.

William "Tee" Cassells told the county's Civil Service Board the sheriff knew overtime had been paid to the choir, lied about it, and angrily blamed Cassells for the whole thing.

"I said, 'Sheriff, are you OK?'" Cassells testified. "He was shouting 'You lied to me.' He said I caused him to go on TV and make a fool out of himself, so he was going to make a fool out of me ... I was to consider myself under investigation for lying. Since I embarrassed him, he was going to embarrass me."

Hill fired Cassells after publicly announcing the second-in-command had paid $45,000 in overtime to a volunteer choir without the sheriff's knowledge or approval, and then lied about it three of four times last November.

Choir overtime pay became an issue when a grand jury presentment recommended the sheriff's office -- constantly strapped for funding and requiring mandatory overtime to staff the jail -- stop paying or compensating choir members to practice. Hill, asked about the grand jury's presentment by reporters, denied the choir was being paid overtime and denied it had ever been paid overtime.

When evidence of overtime pay emerged, Hill claimed he had been deceived by his second-in-command, Cassells. He said he knew little about the choir and nothing about overtime pay.

Cassells and his lawyer, Debra Schwartz, argue that Hill was caught lying to a grand jury, the media and the citizens of Clayton County, and used Cassells as a "fall guy" and "scape goat."

When Hill testified before the Civil Service Board, in the beginning of March, he described himself as removed from the day-to-day operations of the office, leaving those details up to his chief deputy, as he focused on politics and setting the vision.

Wearing a pale, purple shirt and pressing his palms together, Cassells calmly and confidently testified that that characterization was wildly out of line with the reality of the office.

"My duty was to carry out all of the orders of Sheriff Hill," the fired chief deputy said. "Everything that goes through the Sheriff's Office was to go directly through him."

Others who worked in the Sheriff's Office under Hill testified Tuesday that he wasn't a removed and hands-off manager, but knew everything that was going on in the building and knew, specifically, about the overtime pay being spent on the choir.

"The sheriff knew everything that went on in that department. He made it very clear that he was in charge," said Tina Daniel, a lieutenant who was transferred to the county police department as part of a settlement deal for being illegally fired by Hill.

Daniel said that when Hill went on TV and said the choir was never paid overtime, she "fell out my chair," because it was such a bold lie.

As a lieutenant under Hill, Daniel testified, she had complained about the choir members getting pulled away from regular duty to be paid overtime, while leaving their team short-handed and their supervisors working extra, unpaid hours. She was told, she testified to the board, to "shut up and sign the overtime" approval sheets of her subordinates.

"I actually signed it, 'OK per Sheriff Hill,'" Daniel said. "I just put, 'OK per Sheriff Hill,' and I did it."

Daniel said that after the payment of the choir came under criticism in 2005, the sheriff spoke to deputies during roll call and said he was going to continue to pay the choir overtime, reiterating his authority as sheriff.

Civil Service Board member David H. Johnson asked Daniel if there was any way the sheriff could have not known about the overtime being paid to the choir. She said there was not possible. Johnson asked the same question of Cassells, and got the same response.

Cassells' attorney, Debra Schwartz, also produced evidence Hill knew about the choir overtime pay more than a year before the grand jury criticized the practice. In October 2005, Hill signed, and Cassells initialed, an internal order stating that the choir should receive comp time -- time off for time spent practicing -- rather than overtime pay.

Cassells said that when asked about the way the choir was paid, he reminded the sheriff that the choir members were receiving comp time as per his order. Hill told him to continue the practice, Cassells testified, because "nobody tells me how to run my office."

According to Hill's testimony earlier, he was puzzled by the reoccurring criticism and asked his chief deputy if the office had ever paid the choir like that. Hill recalled loudly asking if Cassells knew the meaning of the word "ever." During his sworn testimony, the sheriff imitated Cassells' deep voice and sometimes halting speech, and repeated his accusation that the chief deputy lied.

Evidence presented during the hearing seems to indicate, though, that Hill denied ever paying overtime to the choir at least once before Cassells allegedly lied about it. According to the sheriff's testimony, he denied overtime was ever paid when questioned by the grand jury, but he only asked his chief deputy about it when the grand jury made its final presentment.

Evidence presented during the hearing shows that at least two other members of the sheriff's administrative staff knew the choir was paid overtime, but did not tell the sheriff. And though they say they heard Cassells' lie about it, they did not contradict him until after the sheriff was shown on TV repeating the incorrect information.

Neither of those men was reprimanded, demoted or fired for letting the sheriff make those statements to the grand jury, the media and the public.

Cassells said Tuesday the sheriff's treatment was like a "kick in the face."

"The sheriff went on TV, and he called me a thief and he called me a liar and he told just about everybody in the world ... I was not only shocked, I was mad," Cassells said.

Cassells, who also has a case against Hill pending in federal court, is asking to be reinstated to his former position.

It was not clear Tuesday night when the Civil Service Board might rule in this case.