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County to federal court: 'Please stop the sheriff'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners has no control over the county's sheriff, and the sheriff is out of control, according to a 119-page document filed in federal court.

The document was submitted by the county's attorney as an answer to a lawsuit filed against the county and the sheriff by the former chief deputy sheriff, William "Tee" Cassells.

The county and the sheriff's office are co-defendants in the civil suit, but the county is asking the court for protection against Sheriff Victor Hill, and asking the court to "stop the Sheriff."

After 22 pages defending the county against Cassells' claims, arguing that the county has no authority over the sheriff's office, the county joins Cassells in attacking Hill, spending 97 pages arguing a "cross-claim" against the sheriff.

The sheriff has recklessly disregarded the civil service rights of employees, has obstructed justice by blocking Clayton County Police officers' jailhouse interviews, and has subjected jail inmates to "cruel and inhumane" conditions, according to the document.

Pleading that the county has "no legal remedy" except federal court, the county's appeal cites a long list of reportedly damaging and legally costly actions taken by Hill:

· Since taking office in 2005, Hill has been sued by 34 employees.

· In the last nine months, sheriff's office employees have filed more than 67 appeals and grievances -- "an excessively high amount" -- with the civil service board, alleging "illegal, improper, and unethical employment policies and actions."

· The working environment at the sheriff's office is "full of discrimination, arbitrary employment actions, retaliatory employment actions, political tension, hostility, physical intimidation and fear of retaliation."

· Major Lawrence Ethridge, the now-resigned supervisor of the jail, threatened to hurt employees if they didn't support Hill's re-election bid.

· Hill has restricted access to the jail since March, with "ever-changing requirements for access to the Jail's inmates," a policy which "obstructs and hinders outside law enforcement agencies." On eight occasions, between March 27 and April 24, Clayton County Police Department investigators were denied access to jail inmates, obstructing multiple investigations, including one involving a suspected child molester.

· Under Hill's supervision, the jail is "dangerous, unsanitary and overcrowded."

· Because of Hill's mismanagement, the treatment of inmates, who are serving misdemeanor sentences, or who are awaiting trial, is "inhumane." Cells are rarely cleaned; inmates are forced to sleep on the floor; human waste stagnates in broken toilets; clothes and linens aren't cleaned; spoiled food is served; female inmates are forced to remain naked for hours; those who complain are punished.

The document, written by the county's attorney, Jack Hancock, and signed by County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, seeks a federal injunction stopping Hill from disregarding civil service rules in personnel actions, treating inmates in "a cruel and inhumane manner," and restricting law enforcement access to the jail. The document also asks for a "receiver," someone appointed by the federal judge to run the jail temporarily, as the argument between the county and the sheriff is sorted out.

Hancock said the broad cross-claim is a legally unprecedented move, but one that seemed to be the county's only option against a sheriff who doesn't seem to listen to any authority, and doesn't seem to care if he loses lawsuit after lawsuit.

"We are simply trying to protect the citizens of Clayton County," Hancock said. "Sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring [these issues] is not going to get us anything."

The sheriff's attorney, Josh Viau, said the move is "completely unprecedented," legally, and is improper. Viau said the cross-claim expands the scope of the lawsuit to include irrelevant things, and the county may not have the legal standing to make the sort of requests it makes in the 119-page document.

Viau is preparing an answer to the cross-claim, but said the sheriff's legal counsel is also looking at "further options" in responding to the county.

He dismissed the "vast allegations" in the document as unfounded and politically motivated. "Just because the county said it's true, doesn't mean it's true," he said. "There is an upcoming election."