Longtime Unicoi County lawman retired last week and still faces charges

Brad Hicks • Mar 3, 2012 at 10:32 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County is without a sheriff following Kent Harris’ resignation Thursday, but county officials have the next step in resolving this situation planned.

A special called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission is set for Friday at 5 p.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse, where commissioners intend to discuss the parameters they will use in appointing a new sheriff.

Three items are set for consideration at the meeting. First, commissioners will consider a request for payment of temporary disability benefits to Harris through his labor attorney, Bruce Shine. The funds were previously turned over to the county by Harris.

The panel voted on this matter at last Monday’s regular meeting, choosing to return these funds to the county’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier rather than to Harris directly. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the carrier subsequently contacted County Attorney Doug Shults and notified him the carrier did not need the money returned to it.

“Now we have to go back and send it where it should be,” Lynch said.

Secondly, the commission will consider acceptance of Harris’ resignation letter, which Harris submitted to the county through Shine on Thursday afternoon. Assuming Harris’ resignation is accepted, the sheriff’s position would be officially declared vacant.

The third item for consideration is the process and procedure for filling the vacancy. Lynch said he looks for the commission to lean on Shults’ advice in the matter.

“That is one of the agenda items on the 9th, is to determine how and what procedure they’re going to use,” Lynch said. “What they’ll do is hopefully they’ll take the advice of our county attorney and then they will set the protocol for filling the position.”

But the vacancy will not actually be filled at the meeting. Lynch described the situation as “fluid” after this date, but said expects commissioners to again meet closer to the end of March to appoint a new sheriff.

Prior to the as yet unscheduled meeting, Lynch said the county will advertise the vacancy. This job advertisement, he said, will include the requirements that those applying for the position must have.

County Commission Chairwoman Sue Jean Wilson said the panel will review its options and select the best possible candidate.

“I just want to assure the citizens that whoever is selected will be the top of the people who respond to applying for the position,” Wilson said.

The position also will be placed on the ballot for the Aug. 2 general election. The qualifying deadline for candidates seeking the office is April 5 at noon. The candidate elected will take office on Sept. 1 and serve the remainder of Harris’ term, which expires in 2014.

Until the commission makes its appointment, Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins will assume the sheriff’s responsibilities. Adkins said Friday the department remains committed to providing county residents with the best possible law enforcement protection.

“We’re going to try to provide the citizens of Unicoi County as good a law enforcement as possible, like we have since the time (Harris) has been hurt, and we’re going to try to move forward as much as we can in the coming days to make sure we maintain the high-quality law enforcement that the county deserves,” Adkins said.

Lynch referred to Harris as someone who “loved politics.” At 21, Harris was elected to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen. He worked in the law enforcement field for more than 20 years, serving as sheriff for the last decade following his election in 2002.

“Overall, up until the last year or two, a huge majority of the people from our county were very happy with the sheriff and how he ran his operations and the fact that he had a really good force in place,” Lynch said. “Even people from out of the county commented about what a good job they do up here as far as law enforcement. I think that’s a testament to his leadership ability.”

In August 2010, Harris fell from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail and, among other injuries, suffered a brain injury. Harris not only received local treatment for the injury, but also went through stints at treatment centers in Atlanta and Florida. Lynch said Harris’ time away from his office may have given his detractors an opportunity to become more vocal in their disdain of him.

Some in the community began to voice frustration that Harris remained in office while unable to perform his duties, Lynch said. Others were upset because they believed Harris was drawing his salary along with workers’ compensation payments. This, however, was not the case, Lynch said. Harris began receiving weekly workers’ compensation checks following his fall and received 21 checks totaling $17,671.50. Lynch said this money was erroneously sent to Harris by the county’s insurance carrier. Harris never cashed the checks, instead returning the money to the county as soon as he received it.

Lynch previously said this money was put into a reserve account and was advised Harris would receive the funds as part of a disability settlement.

“The whole situation just sort of escalated with people on both sides, pro-sheriff people and anti-sheriff people, who were against each other,” Lynch said. “A lot of rumors came out, vicious rumors on people, and then, of course, the (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) started investigating. Then people started calling TBI, and they were running down all sort of different things.”

In October, the TBI presented its case to a Unicoi County grand jury, which returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felonies. The charges included six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, attempted aggravated assault, theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation.

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 appeared in Unicoi County Criminal Court, where he pleaded not guilty. Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood granted a motion for a severance of Harris’ charges. Harris is set to begin trial on the theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation charges on July 30.

Harris was again indicted by a grand jury on Feb. 16, charged with an additional count of official misconduct for allegedly having a UCSD employee use departmental equipment supplies to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his attorneys’ fees during that employee’s working hours in November. He is scheduled to make his initial appearance in Criminal Court on March 27.

Since Harris was first charged, he has been the subject of both support rallies and online petitions urging state Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. to expedite ouster proceedings against him. On Wednesday, Cooper’s office said it would not pursue ouster proceedings. A release said the official misconduct charges “while serious, were based on facts that were too old to be used for ouster.”

The release also said the office had been reviewing Harris’ Feb. 16 indictment to see if it would support initiation of ouster proceedings, but that Harris’ retirement had made this “moot.”

Harris’ retirement through the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System was effective Wednesday, according to Tennessee Department of the Treasury Communications Director Blake Fontenay.

On Thursday, Harris, through Shine, submitted his letter of resignation to Lynch’s office. In that letter, Harris cited ongoing health problems as his reason for deciding to resign as Unicoi County’s sheriff, but makes no mention of the criminal charges.

“I believe that even if he didn’t have charges against him, I would fear that his health and the strain that it’s put on his family ... he would probably have to consider stepping down,” Lynch said. “In fact, he might have done it even sooner than this, but he had to make sure his attorneys have optimized his retirement, which is just like everybody else does, and the rest is up to the court system.”

Lynch said while in office, Harris just seemed to “get things done.” During his tenure the UCSD maintained one of the state’s highest crime solvability rates. Harris had a hand in the construction of the Unicoi County Animal Shelter, oversaw improvements to the jail and the construction of its annex facility on the Jackson-Love Highway. The department also assisted in the construction of the county’s railroad museum and started the inmate work program, which has benefitted the county’s three governmental entities on numerous projects, Lynch said.

“I think it’s bittersweet that he’s leaving, that he’s stepping down,” Lynch said. “I feel like it’s something that’s in the best interest of the county, but I hope that after he gets through the court system and all that people in the county have not forgotten what a good job he did. Time will tell and history will tell just what his impact on the county was.”

The county is full of stories from individuals and families who Harris personally lent a helping hand to, Lynch said.

“I’m not afraid to say this publicly — Sheriff Harris is my friend and regardless of what happens to him in the future here with these court hearings, I’ll still consider him a friend,” Lynch said.

Harris could not be reached Friday for comment.

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