County in limbo on Harris action

Brad Hicks • Jan 7, 2012 at 10:25 PM

ERWIN — Nearly three months after a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Sheriff Kent Harris on 10 felony charges, the county is maintaining a “wait-and-see” approach with regard to the situation involving the sheriff.

County officials are still waiting on action from the state attorney general’s office before making any moves of their own regarding Harris’ position, according to County Mayor Greg Lynch.

“It’s not anything that’s dead in the water,” Lynch said. “It’s on hold right now.”

In late October, the County Commission heard from County Attorney Doug Shults who, at that time, told the commission that he had received information from District Attorney General Tony Clark that the state attorney general’s office was looking into civil actions relative to Harris’ removal from office.

On Oct. 14, a grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felonies, including six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, theft over $1,000, criminal simulation and attempted aggravated assault.

Ouster proceedings can be initiated by the state attorney general’s office, the district attorney general’s office or the county. Should the County Commission seek the ouster, the costs associated with the proceedings would fall to the county.

“I think that’s the reason it’s not been brought up for a vote on that,” Lynch said.

While Lynch said the sheriff has occasionally returned to his office to work, Harris has been out on medical leave to receive treatment for injuries suffered in an August 2010 fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail.

Since then, Harris has continued to draw his annual salary of $66,703, Lynch said. Lynch also said Harris erroneously received $16,830 in workers’ compensation payments. However, Lynch said each time Harris received a check from workers’ comp, the money was immediately returned to the county. This money, Lynch said, was placed back in the county’s general fund.

According to Lynch, state law offers protection for elected officials. Under state law, elected officials do not have to be present as long as their office can maintain normal operation without their presence.

“As far as I know, there’s no limit to how long as one can stay out on medical leave,” Lynch said.

Clark said that in a recent contact with the state attorney general’s office, the state attorney general requested video, medical records, pictures and any recorded statements pertaining to the Harris case from Clark’s office.

“I spoke with them, and they wanted to make sure they had all our records in the way of TBI files,” Clark said.

More recently, Clark met with officials with the state attorney general’s office Thursday, but was not given a timetable on when the office may make its decision regarding the case.

“The only response I got was they were still looking at it,” Clark said.

An emailed response from the state attorney general’s office indicates no movement from the state regarding the Harris situation.

“There’s nothing to report,” Leigh Ann Apple Jones with the state attorney general’s office wrote.

The email also contained a letter which cited Tennessee Code Annotated 8-4-101, which is the statutory standard for ouster. This code states officeholders who knowingly or willfully commit misconduct in office, neglect the duties of their office enjoined upon them by state law, are found publicly intoxicated, engage in any form of illegal gambling or commit any act “constituting a violation of any penal statute involving moral turpitude” shall forfeit their office.

Harris said he has not been medically cleared to return to work and continues to receive treatment at facilities in Atlanta and Asheville, N.C. He also said he has not yet been cleared to drive by his doctors. The Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicle previously issued to the sheriff is utilized by various deputies in the department when additional cruisers are needed, Harris said.

A planned support meeting hosted by the Citizens in Support of Sheriff David Kent Harris, of which Harris’ mother is treasurer, was planned for late November. The meeting also was to act as a fundraiser for Harris’ legal fees. Some in the community, particular those associated with the Unicoi County Citizens for Good Governance, questioned whether such a meeting would violate state ethics laws.

Harris said previously that funds raised from the gathering would go toward fees in a potential case, which includes ouster proceedings, rather than the criminal case against him. The meeting was not held and has not yet been rescheduled, Harris said.

Harris also said he has complete confidence in the court system and harbors no hard feelings toward Clark. Harris said “when the entire truth comes out” in his case, he believes he will not be found guilty of any crimes.

“I’ve just got a real peace about everything,” Harris said. “All I can do is thank everybody for praying for me and pray for them.”

The sheriff said he intends to remain in office as the acting sheriff of Unicoi County throughout the court proceedings.

“As long as Kent Harris is the sheriff, we’ll work with Kent Harris, and as long any other officeholder is still the officeholder, that’s who we’ll work with,” Lynch said.

Harris is scheduled to appear before Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Feb. 7.

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