Gov. Sonny Perdue has ordered an investigation into reports that Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill has abandoned his office.
Hill reportedly vacated the office when he lost his re-election bid in August. If the investigation confirms rumors of a cleared-off desk and an AWOL "chief law enforcement officer," the governor could suspend the sheriff during the last two months of Hill's term.
The Georgia Sheriff's Association asked the governor for an investigation, after "numerous complaints" that Hill has been absent.
"If the sheriff's office has been vacated, seemingly abandoned, that really affects the safety of our citizens," said J. Terry Norris, executive vice president of the association. "If the allegations are numerous enough, and come from enough different sources, and there seems to be some sort of truth to them, then they bear looking into ... He took an oath of office, and that lasts four years. I hope they find out he's fulfilling his oath and trying to fill it out for the rest of his term."
Perdue acted on the Georgia Sheriffs' Association's recommendations, signing an executive order on Tuesday, appointing a committee to investigate "alleged misconduct in office."
The executive order says the "allegations, if factual, represent a threat to the safety of the citizens of Clayton County and to the employees and operations of the Clayton County Sheriff's Office."
Norris said the allegations, if accurate, also endanger the perception of sheriffs everywhere, and the members of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association are concerned Hill is making them all look bad.
"That's very important to the rest of the sheriffs in the state," Norris said. "The office of sheriff is so very important, if those responsibilities are being ignored, then the sheriffs of this state want something done about it."
The investigative committee is made up of State Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley and Butts County Sheriff Gene Pope. The three men are appointed to make a report and recommendation to Perdue within 30 days.
Bert Brantley, the governor's spokesman, emphasized the caution necessary in signing this sort of executive order, but said the investigation seems warranted.
"Sheriffs are elected by the people, and we certainly value that they're elected by the people to serve out a term, and want the sheriffs to fill out their terms, but there are situations, there are times, where the conduct needs to be looked into," Brantley said.
The process is a "very fair process," according to the governor's spokesman, and has been used "several times a year," in recent years. Brantley said the Clayton County situation is a little different, though, because the allegations didn't include allegations of criminal activity.
The committee, Brantley said, will "go in with an open mind and see what the situation is. What we try to do, obviously, is get somebody who has a fresh attitude and is coming in without their minds made up either way."
The committee will report back to Perdue by late October. If Perdue decides to suspend the sheriff, the suspension could last through Christmas, or even to Jan. 1, when one of the two men campaigning for the spot will take office.
In case of suspension, an interim sheriff would be appointed by the Chief Judge of the Clayton County Superior Court, Matthew Simmons.
Norris said that if Hill has vacated the office, then there's no one to "facilitate transition," and the interim officeholder could do that. He said he knows Hill has critics who will say the investigation comes too late and can only do a little bit, but the governor only has the power to suspend a sheriff for up to 90 days.
"I hope that what they find is Victor Hill is there and he's trying to do his job and transition out of the office," Norris said.
Hill and the sheriff's office spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.