JONESBORO — Clayton County sheriff-elect Victor Hill enjoyed countywide support of his candidacy, taking 42 of 59 precincts reporting Tuesday night, according to unofficial election results.
Hill, who is facing a 37-felony count indictment and possibly years in prison if convicted, squeaked into office with 1,772 more votes than incumbent Sheriff Kem Kimbrough. When the two faced off in 2008, Kimbrough became sheriff by getting 686 more votes than Hill, who was the incumbent.
On paper, Hill is the apparent winner. Getting into and holding the office is another hurdle altogether. Georgia law tightly controls elected officials accused of wrongdoing and sets specific guidelines for addressing alleged malfeasance. Authorities in Gov. Deal’s office, the Georgia Peace Officers Training and Standards Council and Georgia Sheriffs’ Association were inundated with calls from the media and other officials Tuesday as word spread of Hill’s victory.
No one can remember when a person under felony indictment has been elected sheriff in Georgia, said Deal’s press secretary, Stephanie Mayfield.
“Not to our knowledge,” she said. “This is unique.”
That assertion is backed up by Terry Norris, GSA executive director.
“Never in my more than 30 years in this field can I remember an indicted official taking office,” he said.
Georgia law prohibits a convicted felon from holding office, and Hill is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, POST suspended his certification when he was indicted in January. Without POST certification, Hill has no arresting powers and can only hold an administrative position, said Ryan Powell, director of operations at POST.
Under Georgia law, a sheriff-elect is given six months to become POST-certified. Hill cannot be cleared for POST certification until his criminal case has been resolved, said Powell.
“If you are not POST-certified within six months, you are no longer qualified to hold office,” he said.
If Hill is convicted of any felony, his suspension becomes a revocation. However, even an exoneration of conviction of a misdemeanor doesn’t make the POST investigation go away, said Powell.
“We will still finish the process,” he said. “The suspension can be lifted but he can still be under investigation. Of course, our case gets weaker if he is exonerated on all charges and we’ll close out the investigation pretty quick.”
The second prong-approach to handling Hill comes from Deal’s office. If Hill’s case is not resolved by the time he is sworn in Jan. 1, the governor can assemble a panel with the state Attorney General and two sitting sheriffs to hear evidence against Hill, said Mayfield.
“If the panel recommends against suspending the sheriff, Gov. Deal can’t take any action,” she said. “If the panel recommends suspending the sheriff, the governor has the option to issue an order of suspension or not do anything.”
Mayfield said she isn’t sure how much time Deal has before he is required to assemble a panel.
If Hill resolves the charges in his favor before Jan. 1, the issue becomes moot. Hill’s attorney, Steve Frey, said Tuesday he hopes to get the case resolved “quickly,” and, presumably, with an exoneration and not a conviction. Clayton Superior Court Judge Albert Collier is presiding over the case, which is not on any of his 2012 trial calendars.
Aside from Hill’s criminal case, Norris said he is returning to office with a strike against him.
“He was not held in the highest regard when he was sheriff before, simply because of the antics he pulled,” said Norris. “Of course, the biggest hurdle is the criminal charges.”
On Hill’s first day in office in 2005, he fired 27 deputies who were expecting to be sworn in for another four years. They hired an attorney, got their jobs back and split a multi-million dollar settlement. That action drew worldwide attention to Clayton and set the tone for Hill’s tumultuous four-year term that included butting heads with county commissioners and other law enforcement leaders, spending thousands of tax dollars to repaint patrol cars and other items with his name emblazoned on them and buying a helicopter, airplane and military tank without the county’s permission.
Norris said GSA won’t hesitate to ask Deal to investigate Hill if officials think it is warranted.
“We have a long history of taking a progressive role of asking for investigations when needed,” he said.
The fact that a candidate under felony indictment was elected has the whole state buzzing, said Norris.
“I’ve had sheriffs calling from all over the state today,” he said. “It is the topic of much discussion.”
According to the unofficial results, Clayton voters didn’t hesitate to welcome Hill back over returning the incumbent to office. While Kimbrough took 55.64 percent of the absentee in-person votes and 68.70 percent of absentee-by-mail votes — and 15 of 59 precincts — Hill was the top vote-getter in 42 precincts.
Kimbrough carried pockets of support scattered throughout the county, including four polls in Forest Park, seven in Jonesboro, two in Riverdale and one each in Morrow and the panhandle. He swept Jonesboro 6 at M.D. Roberts Middle School with 81.30 percent of the 599 votes cast there, and Forest Park 4 at Babb Middle School with 70.10 percent of the 204 ballots cast for sheriff.
He took Forest Park 1 at Forest Park Middle School with 65.83 percent, Forest Park 6 at Haynie Elementary School with 58.67 percent and Forest Park 5 at Philadelphia Presbyterian Church with 51.94 percent.
In Jonesboro, Kimbrough carried Jonesboro 5, First Presbyterian Church of Jonesboro, with 62.04 percent, Jonesboro 7 at Mount Zion High School with 51.96 percent, Jonesboro 9 at Shelnutt Intergenerational Center with 56.64 percent, Jonesboro 11 at Arnold Elementary School with 57.91 percent, Jonesboro 14 at Suder Elementary School with 67.96 percent and Jonesboro 15 at Lee Library with 54.75 percent.
In Morrow, Kimbrough won the Municipal Complex precinct with 67.70 percent and 56.74 percent of the vote in the Panhandle 2 precinct. In the Riverdale precincts 6 and 7, Kimbrough garnered 51.97 and 51.05 percent of the votes, respectively.
The biggest margin of victor for Hill was in the Oak 4 precinct at Christian Fellowship Baptist Church where he took 69.29 of the 280 votes cast for sheriff.
Among the precincts taken by Hill, the majority — 24 — were won by roughly a 60-30 percent split. The remainder were in the 50-40 percent range.