Prosecutors argued Tuesday before an appeals court that racketeering charges for misusing campaign money should be reinstated against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill.
The prosecution is seeking to reverse a decision last fall by a Clayton Superior Court judge who dismissed five counts of racketeering and misuse of campaign money against the controversial sheriff. Hill returned to office for a second run as sheriff on Jan. 1 with the specter of a trial hanging over his head. Last fall, Hill defeated incumbent sheriff Kem Kimbrough who had unseated him four years earlier. But a slew of indictments against Hill cast doubts on whether he would be able to take office.
Hill was indicted in January 2012 on 37 felony charges of racketeering and theft, stemming from a special grand jury investigation. They charges included misuse of campaign money as well as county-issued items.
The indictment said Hill used county cars and a county-issued credit card to take vacations to the North Georgia mountains, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi, sometimes taking an employee. He also was charged with using campaign funds for personal reasons. But those set of charges evaporated last September when Clayton Superior Court Judge Albert Collier dismissed the five counts - two racketeering and three theft by taking charges involving campaign money.
In his decision, Collier said the theft charges were unwarranted because the money belonged to Hill and there was no victim. Misuse of campaign funds, which could be an alternative to the theft charges, is a misdemeanor, Collier wrote, and a racketeering charge requires at least two felony counts to support it. The special prosecutor in the case, Layla Zon, appealed saying she wanted the appeals court to weigh in on the matter because she said it ultimately could set a precedent for what candidates can do with campaign money.
“We wanted to make the argument in front of the court of appeals that campaign money is not the personal assets of Mr. Hill,” Zon said. “Therefore any misappropriation of those funds, which he’s only allowed to collect under the Georgia Campaign Finance Act, constitutes a theft.”
Tuesday’s appearance before the appeals court was mostly a procedural matter that must be cleared before Hill’s case can move forward. Hill was slated to go to trial last November but the case was delayed because Zon sought the appeal.
Both sides got 15 minutes Tuesday to present their arguments to the three-judge panel. Hill’s attorney argued two key points: Collier was right in dismissing the charges, eliminating any allegations that Hill may have misused campaign funds. Also, Hill’s attorneys argued that the method by which the prosecution appealed was wrong, said Drew Findling, one of Hill’s attorneys.
“We contend that they (prosecutors) improperly appealed and that Judge Collier was correct,” Findling said.”Even if the court of appeals does accept the appeal, Judge Collier was correct in dismissing the counts.”
Tuesday’s appearance was one more twist in a case that has drawn national attention for the popular but polarizing sheriff. The state’s sheriffs weighed into the fray, asking Gov. Deal to intervene to try to keep Hill from serving. But Deal said he could not suspend Hill while he defended himself against the charges.
A ruling from the appellate court could take weeks or months.