Victor Hill was indicted in January and faces 32 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, as well as using county resources for vacations. Defense attorneys have said during court hearings that the accusations are attacks by political rivals.
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who is 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 current Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, a Democrat, in the county of about a quarter-million people just south of Atlanta. However, 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: current 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.
But Hill took a tough-on-crime stance and boasts 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 says it was already owned by the agency and he was merely putting it to use). On his campaign website, he mentions his affinity for the superhero Batman in refuting a rumor that he had a life-size figure in his office: “Victor Hill had several Batman figures in his office that were given to him as gifts from citizens and employees who knew he was a Batman fan. None of them were life size.”
Hill became mired in controversy the day he took office in 2005, when he fired 27 deputies, including Watkins. He says there were valid reasons for each firing, though a judge later ordered that they be reinstated.
A phone listing for Hill was disconnected, and he did not respond to an email message sent to his campaign. Calls to a handful of Hill’s campaign donors were not returned or the number was disconnected. One declined comment.
Watkins, who has 26 years with the sheriff’s department and became chief deputy under current Sheriff Kimbrough, said he decided to launch his longshot bid when Hill won the primary. He said he thinks low voter turnout played a role in the outcome.
“Right now, I just don’t believe that Victor Hill is what this county needs,” said Watkins, 50, of Jonesboro. “Being a sheriff, you are a reflection of the people you serve. It is embarrassing. I don’t know any other way to say it.”
Even if Hill is elected, it’s possible he could be tossed out of office 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 if he should be suspended. If that panel recommends that the sheriff be suspended, the governor can then decide whether to follow that recommendation. If he were to be suspended, a temporary replacement would be appointed.
Under Georgia law, anyone convicted of a felony cannot hold the office of sheriff — meaning it’s possible Hill would be tossed from office if convicted of even one charge. 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 website, 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 notes 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.”