By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — Clayton County sheriff-elect Victor Hill took the oath of office for the second time Thursday under circumstances far different from his first swearing-in in December 2004.
When Hill, then 39, was elected the county’s first black sheriff, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Sears administered him the oath with much pomp and circumstance. Hill, wearing a full dress uniform, was surrounded by enthusiastic supporters. He promised then to always be the “keeper of the county.”
“I’ll never forget the man who said, ‘I will vote for you if you get that crack house off my street,’ ” he said at the time. “I promise you that every waking moment I will be the keeper of the county.”
Fast-forward eight years. There was no fanfare as Hill took the oath alone in the chambers of Clayton County Probate Judge Pam Ferguson, unaccompanied by an army of supporters.
Hill, 47, is under a 32-count felony indictment that could send him to prison for years and take away any chance of ever holding political office. One of the allegations is violation of the oath of office. Through his team of attorneys, Hill maintains his innocence and vows to carry out the duties of sheriff.
Hill couldn’t be reached for a statement. Hill attorney Steve Frey declined to comment when reached Thursday afternoon.
Taking the oath is just the first step toward accomplishing Hill’s goal. Being under felony indictment and awaiting trial puts Hill in unchartered territory for Clayton County.
There is a possibility Gov. Nathan Deal will appoint someone else to occupy the office of sheriff until Hill’s legal troubles are resolved. The Georgia Sheriffs Association has already presented Deal with a substitute — former Sheriff Bill Lemacks. Lemacks was the county’s 18th sheriff and served from 1983 until 1996.
But Clayton County’s legislative delegation is opposed to the governor stepping in. District 77 state Rep. Darryl Jordan sent a letter to Deal last month, asking him to stay out of what he considers a local issue.
“I could not continue to look at myself straight in the mirror if I did not register my complaint with you about the modern-day lynching of an elected official in Clayton County, Victor Hill,” Jordan’s letter begins. “Victor Hill is my friend. He is a man who has admitted to the voters of Clayton County that he has made some mistakes in the past.”
Jordan continued to accuse Hill’s opponents of violating the Voting Rights Act by taking away the will of the people who elected him. He claims GSA is “hijacking” voters.
Jordan and delegation Chairwoman Sen. Gail Davenport of Jonesboro, Vice Chairwoman Rep. Sandra Scott of Rex, Sen. Valencia Seay of Riverdale, Rep. Keisha Waites of Atlanta, Rep.-elect Demetrius Douglas and Rep.-elect Ronnie Mabra have also issued a joint statement opposing GSA’s recommendation.
“We share great concern that GSA’s recommendation to Gov. Nathan Deal to fill the sheriff’s position has come before the courts make a decision on Mr. Hill’s innocence or guilt,” reads the statement.
GSA Executive Director Terry Norris has said the intent is not to undermine the decision of the people.
“This is not an attempt to circumvent the electorate,” said Norris in response to the delegation’s concerns. “We were looking at it solely from a professional aspect and to get someone experienced to sit in that seat temporarily until things settle down.”
Outgoing Sheriff Kem Kimbrough retains the office until midnight Dec. 31. With Jan. 1 a county holiday, it is expected that Hill will officially return to power Jan. 2. On his first day in office in 2005, Hill fired 27 deputies — all of whom sued him and the county. They won back their jobs and split a multi-million dollar settlement.
Hill has promised to proceed with caution this time, vowing to bring in human resources personnel to help with the transition of power.
Sheriff’s Capt. Brian Crisp said there is too much uncertainty to comment on what actions employees might take, although some who are eligible have applied for retirement.
“We are all waiting to see,” he said Thursday. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
Also on his first day in 2005, Hill charged the brother of his predecessor, Stanley Tuggle, with harassing phone calls. Mark Tuggle reportedly called the sheriff’s office at least twice to discuss the firings. Mark Tuggle reportedly called Hill “a short little (expletive)” in one message and “lowdown scum” in the second.
The Clayton County State Court Solicitor General dismissed the case seven months later. Mark Tuggle filed a civil suit against Hill in February 2006. A U.S. District Court jury held Hill responsible for the false arrest and ordered him to pay Mark Tuggle $475,000.
Tuggle’s attorney, Bill Atkins, also sought more than $100,000 in attorneys fees. Nearly six years later, Atkins said neither he nor his client has seen a dime.
Hill filed for bankruptcy and lost the home he bought in 2004 to foreclosure after losing a re-election bid in 2008.
Hill takes office this time as a law enforcement officer without Georgia certification. The Peace Officers Standards and Training Council suspended his certification when he was indicted in January. Under state law, Hill has six months in which to regain active certification or become ineligible to hold office.
Without certification, he has no arresting powers and isn’t authorized to carry a firearm. It is unlikely that POST will reinstate certification until Hill’s criminal case is resolved.
Hill was set to go to trial Nov. 26 but both the state and defense have filed motions with the Court of Appeals, delaying trial for up to a year.
Clayton County commissioners appointed County Manager Wade Starr last week to be the county's liaison with Hill during the Sheriff's Office transition.