ERWIN — Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris is disputing some of the work experience and training that interim Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley has stated he possesses, leading Harris to question whether Hensley is qualified to seek the office in the August general election.
However, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission has said that Hensley meets the necessary requirements to hold the office of sheriff on an interim basis and seek it on a more permanent basis in the upcoming election.
Harris, along with his uncle Kenny Woods, had letters published in this past Tuesday’s Erwin Record newspaper in which they question Hensley’s previously stated work background and POST certification training.
In particular, Harris is questioning Hensley’s statement that he worked as a deputy with the Carter County Sheriff’s Department from 1998-2000 and Hensley’s statements that he was POST trained in 1993 and 1997.
The Unicoi County Commission voted to appoint Hensley as interim sheriff of Unicoi County on March 26, following Harris’ resignation from the position on March 1. Hensley is also one of the two candidates seeking the office of sheriff in the August general election. Harris, who is currently facing 11 felony charges in Unicoi County Criminal Court, cited health reasons as his reason for resignation in a letter previously submitted to County Mayor Greg Lynch’s office. Harris was injured in August 2010 in a fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail.
Harris said it was his travels back and forth from the Shepherd’s Pathway Center in Atlanta to receive treatment for these injuries that led to the event that caused him to first question Hensley’s stated credentials.
“I guess not long after the first time probably that I came home, I just started hearing rumblings from this person and that person that Mike was going around to all the commissioners trying to get appointed sheriff, that he went to the county mayor’s office wanting him to come evaluate me, said I needed to be mentally evaluated,” Harris said.
Harris said the last time he recalls speaking to Hensley face-to-face was in September, after Harris reprimanded Hensley and now-Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Frank Rogers over what he felt was the mishandling of a marijuana confiscation case.
Earlier that month, Hensley, Rogers and two other officers found marijuana plants hidden on the Coffee Ridge area property of Jerry Honeycutt and Jerry Duncan, according to police reports issued at the time. In all, officers said they found a total of 21 plants on the property. Harris said the number of plants found constituted a felony drug charge and arrests, and that the reprimand of Hensley and Rogers came from the issuance of citations to Duncan and Honeycutt rather than their arrest.
During his meeting with Hensley regarding the matter, Harris said Hensley asked why he was no longer chief deputy of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.
“I just told him, I said ‘Mike, I just feel like I can’t have trust and confidence in somebody that’s going around trying to get my job from me,’ ” Harris said.
Harris said Hensley remained the supervisor over the department’s night shift operations following the reprimand. He also said Rogers was removed from narcotics division investigations and placed back on patrol following the reprimand.
In October, Harris said he ran into former Carter County sheriff John Henson at his son’s basketball game at Happy Valley. There, Harris said he asked Henson, who served as Carter County sheriff from 1996 to 2006, about his personal experiences in working with Hensley for the two years he worked for the Carter County Sheriff’s Department. Harris said he was told that Hensley did not work as a deputy for the department.
“We were talking and I said ‘John, did Mike give you any trouble when he worked for
you?’ ” Harris said. “At that point, I was getting information from several of my deputies that Mike was coming to them and telling them that I was never going to come back, and at that point we didn’t know what I was going to do. John said ‘No, Mike Hensley never worked for me as a deputy.’
“I said ‘John, are you sure about that?’ He said ‘The only thing Mike Hensley ever done for me was during the flood and during the blizzard,’ like probably hundreds of other people that came over there. He said ‘I made him an honorary deputy and gave him a card.’ ”
Christa Byrd, deputy director for the Carter County Finance Department, said Friday that no record of Hensley being a paid employee of the county, either part-time or full-time, could be located in her department’s accounting system or paper files. She said this would be the case if Hensley served with the Carter County Sheriff’s Department in a volunteer-type role.
“That’s not to say he wasn’t involved, but from our records we cannot find any evidence he was a paid employee,” Byrd said.
Henson could not be reached for comment.
Harris said his encounter with Henson led him to further research Hensley’s personnel file. Harris said Hensley stated in documents that he not only worked as a deputy for the Carter County Sheriff’s Department, but that he received POST training in 1993 and 1997. Harris said he found that Hensley attended emergency dispatcher training in 1997, which Harris said “doesn’t count” as far as POST training. He also said that he could find no record of Hensley receiving any type of POST training in 1993. The combination of Hensley’s work as a special deputy and lack of POST training in 1993 and 1997 would not make him POST certified, Harris said.
Harris said he took Hensley “at his word” concerning his experience and credentials when he hired him as a Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department deputy in 2002. He said that he wrote a letter to the POST Commission that same year, asking it to allow Hensley to take a written test for certification rather than going back through the police academy based on the experience Hensley stated to him.
“It’s my fault,” Harris said. “I should have had somebody at that point really look into everybody’s background before I signed a letter. I just took him at his word that all that stuff was true, and that’s the reason I signed the letter. I never imagined it would come to all this.”
Harris also said his continued inquiries regarding Hensley’s appointment do not represent a case of “sour grapes” over Hensley’s appointment to serve as interim Unicoi County sheriff. Harris said his contacts with the POST Commission regarding Hensley’s background began before he resigned as sheriff.
“I guess I can see where people might think that’s the case, but I hope they realize this ain’t something I brought up a week ago,” Harris said.
Harris said his first contact with the POST Commission regarding Hensley took place in November. Harris said a friend of his named Mike Bryant wished to pursue the office of sheriff several years ago, but was not allowed to do so because he failed to meet POST qualifications. Harris said the POST Commission should treat Hensley in a similar fashion in the interest of fairness.
“I think Mike Hensley should be treated just like Mike Bryant was treated,” Harris said. “If you lied about your qualifications and training going into it, I think they should do their job. This Mike Bryant wanted to run for sheriff and was taking his papers out at the election commission, but because he had worked part-time instead of full-time, they wouldn’t let him run. But yet Mike Hensley, with all the problems and issues, they are letting him run. I just don’t think that’s really fair.”
Despite Harris’ inquiries, the POST Commission has stated that Hensley meets the necessary qualifications to seek the office of Unicoi County sheriff. These qualifications include the candidate possessing at least three years of full-time experience as a POST Commission certified law enforcement officer in the previous 10 years or at least three years of full-time experience as a state or federal certified law enforcement officer with training equivalent to that required by the POST Commission in the previous 10 years.
“Mike Hensley meets the qualifications to run for sheriff,” Christopher Garrett, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, wrote in an email when asked if Hensley met the necessary POST qualifications to seek the office of Unicoi County sheriff.
According to the the minutes from the April 20 meeting of the Committee of the POST Commission, POST Investigator John Welch said he began receiving the “first of many” letters from Harris in reference to Hensley’s certification in late 2011.
“Mr. Welch said he has looked into the matter and has found no indication that there were any misleadings to POST. All of Mr. Hensley’s documentation is in place,” the meeting’s minutes state.
The minutes also address Hensley’s prior work with the Carter County Sheriff’s Department. According to the minutes, Welch asked Henson if he remembered Hensley, to which Henson replied that he did and that Hensley worked in Carter County as an auxiliary officer for special deputy. Henson told Welch that Hensley did help with floods in the Carter County area in the late 1990s and that no paperwork, applications or training records would be found, according to the minutes.
“Mr. Hensley put in a great deal of time working their dispatcher or whatever the sheriff wanted him to do,” the minutes state. “That statement contradicts the letter that Kent Harris wrote.”
The minutes further state the POST Commission will stand by its decision that Hensley is POST certified and that he meets the qualifications of sheriff.
And, as far as the Unicoi County Commission is concerned, Hensley has met the necessary qualifications and it will not pursue any type of investigation regarding Hensley’s experience, according to Lynch.
“As far as the county’s concerned, at this point, we’re not looking into anything,” Lynch said.
Hensley could not be reached for comment.