ATLANTA — A lawman who says he is tough on crime stands a good Election Day chance of regaining the Atlanta-area sheriff’s seat he lost four years ago. The catch? He is charged with 32 felonies that could lead to his being suspended or tossed from office.
Victor Hill was indicted in January and faces felony counts stemming from his first term as Clayton County sheriff from 2005 to 2008. The indictment accuses him of taking money from his failed re-election campaign in 2008 and using county resources for vacations. Defense attorneys have said the accusations are attacks by political rivals.
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, the president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said he could not recall an instance of someone under indictment being elected sheriff in the state.
In 2008, Hill was unseated by Kem Kimbrough, a Democrat, in the county of about a quarter-million people just south of Atlanta. Hill thwarted Kimbrough’s bid for re-election in an August runoff, defeating him by more than 1,000 votes. He will be the only candidate on the ballot Tuesday, and his chief rival is a write-in candidate: Clayton County Chief Deputy Garland Watkins.
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.
However, Hill took a tough-on-crime stance and boasts on his campaign Web site of efforts to crack down on drugs and prostitution. He used a tank owned by the agency during drug raids.
Hill fired 27 deputies, including Watkins, on his first day in office in 2005. He says there were valid reasons for each firing, though a judge later ordered them reinstated.
A phone listing for Hill was disconnected, and he did not respond to an e-mail.
Watkins, who has 26 years with the sheriff’s department and became chief deputy under Kimbrough, said he launched his bid when Hill won the primary. He said he thinks low
voter turnout played a role in the outcome.
Even if Hill is elected, it’s possible he could be tossed out under Georgia law. If the charges aren’t resolved by Jan. 1, the governor would appoint a panel of two sheriffs and the attorney general to determine whether he should be suspended. If they recommend suspension and the governor agrees, a temporary replacement would be appointed.
Under Georgia law, anyone convicted of a felony cannot be sheriff. Hill’s certification as a peace officer also has been suspended. State law requires sheriffs to obtain that certification within six months of taking office.
With Hill the only candidate on the ballot, Watkins has mounted an aggressive grassroots campaign. On his campaign site, Watkins talks about how he will restore the agency’s focus on serving warrants, which he says is critical to getting criminals off the streets. He also said he is not facing a felony indictment.
Watkins acknowledges the long odds and says he’s been relying on small and in-kind donations to help keep his campaign running.
“I’ve been only able to get a small amount of money. But we’re going to push on,” Watkins said.
When asked how Hill may have been able to overcome the stigma of a felony indictment, Sills repeated advice he gives other newly elected sheriffs: Sheriffs are never better than the people that elect them. Sills said he frequently interacts with the people in his community and that he is the person they look to for protection – meaning he and other sheriffs must be held to a higher standard.
“If I did some shenanigans like that, Lord have mercy,” he said. “You couldn’t survive it. There’s no way you could survive. I don’t care if you caught (Osama) bin Laden.”