Trial set to start for indicted Georgia sheriff

ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia sheriff who was elected last year despite being under indictment on felony corruption charges is set to go on trial Monday.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill wasn’t in office when he was indicted in February 2012, but the charges stem from his previous term as the county’s sheriff, from 2005 to 2008. The indictment accuses him of taking money from his failed re-election campaign in 2008, as well as using county resources for vacations. Defense attorneys have consistently said the accusations are attacks by political rivals.

“We’re moving from the ballot box to the jury box now,” said Drew Findling, one of Hill’s lawyers. “The people of Clayton County knew what he was charged with and read through the motivations of all people involved and overwhelmingly elected him, and we think throughout the course of the trial the bias and questionable motivation of the people involved is going to come to light.”

Four theft charges against him were dropped Friday, leaving him facing 28 charges. If Hill is convicted of any of the felony charges against him, he will be removed from office since Georgia law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from holding the office of sheriff.

Even if he’s not indicted, he could face disciplinary action. After the criminal trial, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council will complete its investigation into the allegations, the group’s executive director, Ken Vance, said earlier this year. The council could decide on disciplinary action up to revocation of Hill’s peace officer certification, he said.

Hill was unseated in 2008 by Kem Kimbrough in Clayton, a county of about a quarter-million people just south of Atlanta. However, Hill thwarted Kimbrough’s bid for re-election in last year’s Democratic primary runoff, defeating him by more than 1,000 votes. Hill was the only candidate on the ballot in November, his lone challenger a write-in candidate.

Hill’s situation is unique in the state — the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has said it’s not aware of another instance of someone under indictment being elected or serving as sheriff in the state.

Georgia law provides for the governor to convene a three-person panel to consider the suspension of elected officials who are indicted while in office. But Gov. Nathan Deal said in January that because Hill was not in office when he was indicted, the law prohibited him from taking such action against him.

In Clayton County, the sheriff’s department has typically carried out court functions, such as serving warrants and running the jail. A county police force handles other law enforcement duties.

But Hill favored a more high-profile approach, taking a tough-on-crime stance in his first term and boasting on his campaign website of efforts to crack down on drugs and prostitution. He used a tank owned by the agency during drug raids.

He became mired in controversy the day he took office in 2005, when he fired 27 deputies. He said there were valid reasons for each firing, though a judge later ordered that the deputies be reinstated.

He was sworn in for his second term in January and has taken a more low-key approach since then, said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who was president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association until recently.

Steve Sadow, an Atlanta defense attorney who’s not involved in this case, said prosecutor Layla Zon, who’s leading the case against Hill, is a strong prosecutor, but he said she faces some challenges.

“She’s got an uphill battle because a majority of the individuals who may be sitting on this jury believe in him and have shown their faith in him by re-election,” Sadow said.

Jury selection in the case starts Monday and is expected to take several days because Hill is a well-known elected official in the county from which the jury pool will be drawn.