Newton becomes emotional on the stand Monday. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill’s former public information officer and book editor broke down on the stand Monday when he was asked about the day after Hill lost his 2008 bid for re-election.
Special prosecutor Layla Zon asked Jonathan Newton if he was with Hill the day after he lost the August runoff to Kem Kimbrough. He said he was, that Hill was sitting in a chair inside his home, but Newton grew emotional and didn’t complete his answer. Before the line of questioning continued, defense attorneys asked for a sidebar with Judge Albert Collier.
When direct examination resumed, Zon didn’t pursue Newton’s recollection of Hill’s state of mind.
Newton was the first witness to take the stand at 9 a.m. Monday. He talked about meeting Hill in early 2007 and taking a job a few months later as a Clayton County corrections officer despite having no experience, qualifications or training.
“The position he wanted for me, there was no classification for it,” said Newton. “He wanted to get me hired and re-classified, designating me his public information officer.”
The position paid about $33,000, he said, but Hill promised additional compensation if Newton accepted the job.
“He said he could offer additional compensation and the re-classification would be in the $60,000-range,” Newton
testified. “I would get involved and show my worth and I would get additional projects to supplement my income.”
With his background in graphic design, newspapers and printing, Newton took on the duties of creating a newsletter, “The Sheriff’s Star,” as campaign literature for Hill’s 2008 re-election efforts, Newton testified.
When Hill reportedly told Newton that he’d run out of campaign funds to pay him for the newsletter, Newton became a print broker, he said. The scheme netted Newton about $30,000 in alleged kickbacks, said prosecutors who indicted him in May 2011.
Newton testified Monday under immunity and said he is not guilty of any crime.
Hill also enlisted Newton’s editing skills to help him with his autobiography, “The Keeper of the County,” according to Newton.
“It was his life’s legacy,” Newton said. “The legacy built from him and his life, his bigger-than-life persona he considered himself to be.”
Newton said he was excited by the project at first.
“At the time, I was a fan of Victor Hill,” he said. “The book became an obsession of his. At some point, it changed from an autobiography to a tell-all book filled with dirt and garbage he wanted to put out there. It changed when he lost the election in 2008. When he lost, he was highly upset.”
Newton said he continued to get paychecks from the sheriff’s office while he worked on the book from Hill’s home.
“He’d feed me, he’d be writing and dictating to me, writing for hours, day after day until it became untenable,” he said. “I decided to stop working on the book so he put me working the visitation desk at the jail. I was a piece of garbage, throwaway material. I was no longer useful.”
Newton said he was suspended from work for being AWOL, which he denied, and again for insubordination. In the middle of his troubles at work, Newton said he made a recorded phone call to Hill. The recording was played for the jury.
The call begins with Newton telling Hill, “Man, you win” in an apparent acknowledgement of Hill’s power over him. Hill tells him, “Man, ain’t no harsh feelings. Let’s get this book done.”
During the call, Hill tells Newton that the suspension will be dropped, Newton will get overtime and he would tell his chief deputy that Newton’s assignment had changed.
“I got to finish a book,” Hill said. “It ain’t nothing, it ain’t nothing that folks can do to me, I just want the book finished.”
Newton said he didn’t go back to work on the book and left the sheriff’s office in November 2008. He said he took his computer, which contained his work on the book and newsletters, and his digital recording of phone calls to the Clayton County Police Department.
Newton’s cross-examination by defense attorney Steve Frey was contentious as Frey tried repeatedly to impeach his testimony. Frey pointed to several parts in the incomplete manuscript that contained “xxx” to take the place of words or descriptions to be filled in by Hill. Newton repeated that he didn’t write the book, just typed in what Hill dictated and edited for grammar and punctuation.
Frey accused Newton of trying to cover up his involvement in alleged wrongdoing.
“If it’d been covered up, Mr. Frey, it would have really been covered up,” Newton said.
The questioning segued into Newton’s extra money from the newsletter and whether or not he claimed it as income during a divorce from his wife or on tax returns.
“I had no 1099 from the campaign, which was supposed to have been given to me,” said Newton, acknowledging that he hasn’t filed federal tax returns since 2008. “That was a tumultuous year, 2008 was. Very tumultuous.”
After Newton left the sheriff’s office, he became a certified police officer and was working for Palmetto Police Department when he was arrested in May 2011. He disputed Frey’s assertion that Newton has delayed disposing of his criminal charges in hopes of getting a deal for truthful testimony against Hill.
“You’re waiting around for a free meal ticket to testify against Victor Hill, isn’t that true?” said Frey.
“This isn’t a free meal ticket,” Newton said. “This has cost me employment since May 2011. I’m not enjoying this whatsoever. This is not a meal ticket for me.”
Hill faces years in prison if convicted of 28 counts of mostly theft by taking felonies. Prosecutors allege he used county vehicles, credit cards and fuel on personal vacations he took with former employees Naomi Nash and Beatrice Powell. Powell is also under indictment. Both women testified against Hill last week.
Powell and other employees testified that she was placed on paid administrative leave so she continued to draw a salary while she vacationed with Hill, allegedly in violation of county policy and procedure.