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November 13, 2006

Cops Choir face the music!

Atlanta Journal Constitution (GA):

When Clayton County sheriff's deputies offered to form a gospel singing group last year, the idea sounded sweet: a public relations and morale boost. Now Sheriff Victor Hill is having to face the music after finding out his department paid the choir up to $45,000 in overtime to sing last year.

Hill said Monday that all compensation to the group, Voices of Praise, will end. The choir can continue singing, they just won't be harmonizing on the taxpayers' dime. "The Clayton County Sheriff's Office will not provide any overtime, comp time or regular time to the choir," Hill told reporters at a news conference Monday. Hill also announced the sudden retirement of his chief deputy, William "Tee" Cassells, who the sheriff said had been paying the choir overtime without his approval.

Voices of Praise was started by a group of deputies shortly after Hill took office in January 2005. The group has about 30 members, practices twice a month and has performed nine times at fairs and funerals, said its director, Deputy Eugene Nobles. The group last sang Nov. 4 at the Bedford School fall fair in south Fulton County. A dozen members, mostly wearing black leather jackets, stood on the grass under a clear sky as they clapped, swayed and sang, "Melodies from heaven, rain down on me, rain down on me." "He's been good to me!" Nobles called to the crowd. "Has he been good to you?"

Hill has said the choir is a service to the community and an employee morale builder. Still, some wondered why the sheriff allowed deputies to spend time singing in the choir after he's complained about staffing at the county jail. At a County Commission meeting this year, one of Hill's top assistants told of a near staffing crisis that occurred one Friday when the choir had an engagement. "Two of the jail sergeants and myself spent all day trying to find 19 people to come in that weren't already allocated to sing somewhere else on the sheriff's choir," Maj. Mike Maddox said. Laughter filled the room.

A Clayton County grand jury didn't see the humor and this month issued a report suggesting that the the choir was creating staffing problems and that members should sing only when off duty. At first, Hill denied that the county was paying choir members overtime to sing, though he said they might be paid straight time or compensatory time if they peformed on their regular shift. But after looking into county records, Hill said Thursday that choir members had been paid up to $45,000 in overtime last year and that Cassells had approved their time sheets. Hill suspended Cassells with pay. He retired Monday. Cassells did not return a telephone call at his home seeking comment Monday.

Cassells, 54, the department's No. 2 official, handled the department budget. A ramrod figure in a pressed uniform, he towered over Hill as the two men walked the jail corridors together. Hill said his second-in-command misled him, saying choir members were not paid overtime. The sheriff said the investigation into the matter is ongoing. "There was bad discretion used," Hill said. "Clearly, overtime cannot be used with a voluntary group like the choir." The sheriff said Cassells also approved unauthorized overtime for other activities, such as answering telephone calls.

One Clayton resident was angry choir members had been paid overtime to sing. "That's outrageous; that should be voluntary. They are not professionals," said Al Woodard. Clayton District Attorney Jewel Scott said Monday her office would bring the matter to the grand jury for investigation if Hill makes a request. Hill said he doesn't plan to do that. Of Cassells, a nearly 25-year employee, Hill said: "I'm sure the good outweighs the bad and we want to remember that."

Posted by acapnews at November 13, 2006 9:50 PM