Unicoi County grand jury indicts Harris on new charge

Brad Hicks • Feb 16, 2012 at 11:46 PM

ERWIN — A Unicoi County grand jury returned a true bill on Thursday charging Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris with an additional count of official misconduct.

According to the grand jury presentment document filed Thursday in Unicoi County Criminal Court, on or about Nov. 11, Harris had a Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department employee use departmental equipment and supplies to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his attorneys’ fees during the employee’s working hours.

A news release issued Thursday afternoon by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation states the TBI presented additional evidence to the grand jury that resulted in the charge. It also states Harris’ attorneys were served with a criminal summons Thursday afternoon.

Stacy Street, Harris’ co-counsel, said the sheriff’s defense did not wish to comment on the charge at this time.

“We received a copy of it and are reviewing it and will address it at the appropriate time,” Street said.

In October, a Unicoi County 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. According to the TBI, the agency began the investigation into allegations of misconduct made against Harris in September 2010 after being requested by District Attorney General Tony Clark’s office.

On Feb. 7, Harris pleaded not guilty to these charges in Criminal Court. He is set to begin trial on the theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation charges on July 30.

Late last year, a typed letter dated Nov. 30 was sent to Harris’ friends and supporters inviting them to a support meeting for the embattled sheriff. That letter gave those interested in making donations to Harris’ legal fund the opportunity to do so.

“If you would like to make a donation please write a check to: Kent Harris Legal Fund, â„… Kathy Harris,” the letter states.

The support rally was originally scheduled for Dec. 17, but was postponed. The letter inviting supporters to the gathering also gave those unable to make a monetary contribution but interested in supporting the sheriff a chance to sign petitions and the opportunity to join “The Citizens in Support of Sheriff David Kent Harris.” The letter was signed by Harris’ mother, Kathy Harris, treasurer of this group.

Particularly outspoken against the fundraising aspect of the planned gathering were members of the Unicoi County Citizens for Good Governance, a local watchdog group. Group spokesman John Day previously said he received a copy of the letter regarding the gathering from a friend who had received it in the mail and had heard about the planned meeting from others in the community. Last year, Day sent an email to several county commissioners that called the fundraising efforts on behalf of Harris “despicable” and questioned if such efforts violate state ethics laws.

“Sheriff Harris’ request for the citizens of Unicoi County, the people who he is alleged to have wronged in 10 felony charges, to pay his legal fees is not only a despicable act but may violate Tennessee Statutes Title 8, Public Officers and Employees, Chapter 17, Ethical Standards for Officials and Employees,” Day’s email stated.

Harris said previously that the focus of the planned meeting and “The Citizens in Support of Sheriff David Kent Harris” was not on his criminal charges, but rather on efforts to keep him in office. He said funds raised from the gathering would not be used to pay attorneys representing him in his criminal case, but would instead be used to pay a retained attorney who would represent him should ouster proceedings be initiated.

In December, TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said TBI officials had seized a computer from the UCSD, adding the seizure was part of an ongoing probe concerning the UCSD. Helm said Thursday this computer was linked to Harris’ latest charge.

Clark said Thursday’s indictment was returned during a regular grand jury session and said the panel that returned the indictment was composed of different members than the grand jury that indicted Harris in October, as the grand jury changes members every few sessions. Clark said this panel had not heard any cases prior to Thursday.

Clark also said the TBI presented the case and no other witnesses were utilized by the grand jury that returned Thursday’s indictment. He also said Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood presided over the proceedings in the case. In November, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia A. Clark appointed Blackwood to oversee Criminal Court actions in the Harris case.

Harris is scheduled to appear in Criminal Court on March 27 at 9 a.m. for an initial appearance on the new charge.

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