Former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris
ERWIN — An internal audit initiated around one year ago by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department has revealed that several firearms purchased by former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris are not accounted for, and the sheriff’s department is seeking the help of those who obtained a firearm from the former sheriff, UCSD Chief Deputy Frank Rogers said Tuesday.
Rogers said he initiated the internal audit in May 2012 at the direction of Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley after the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department received a letter from a former officer with the department. This officer stated in the letter that alleged criminal activity by Harris had drawn attention to gifts the officer had received from Harris during his employment with the sheriff’s department.
A Unicoi County grand jury had indicted Harris on 10 felonies in October 2011. A grand jury charged Harris with an additional felony official misconduct charge in February 2012.
The former officer stated in his letter that he had received a Smith & Wesson revolver from Harris. The officer stated he itemized the firearm on his regular yearly departmental inventory, but he was advised by Harris to remove the gun from this inventory as it was a “personal gift” from Harris, Rogers said. The former officer stated that Harris said he had purchased the weapon with his own money, not the county’s, Rogers said.
The former officer stated in his letter that when he left the sheriff’s department, he took the firearm on the belief that it was his personal weapon but requested that the sheriff’s department look into the matter.
“I have investigated it as this officer requested,” Rogers said. “I found whenever I did investigate it that that particular weapon had been purchased by the county’s drug fund, which is contrary to the belief that this officer had.”
Rogers said this raised a “red flag,” leading him to look into other firearms given to other officers as apparent gifts by the former sheriff.
“I found several that have been purchased by the county and given to different individuals,” Rogers said. “I don’t know how many of them there are out there.”
The sheriff’s department is asking those who may have received firearms from Harris to contact the department. Rogers said his investigation has found that several other firearms given out by Harris were purchased using county funds. Because they were purchased with county funds, ownership of these firearms could not be transferred witout the approval of the Unicoi County Commission, Rogers said.
“There’s several unaccounted for, and I’d like to know where they are,” Rogers said.
When asked if Harris could face additional charges if it is determined he gave away guns purchased with county funds, Rogers said this would be up to District Attorney General Tony Clark to determine.
“I will say I’ve been in contact with the District Attorney General, and I have made my findings available to him, I’ve let him know exactly what it is,” Rogers said.
Clark could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Rogers said the audit is about attempting to recover county property and is not being undertaken to investigate Harris criminally.
“I’m just trying to recover the county’s rightful property because a lot of people have been misled and they’re in possession of things that they’re not lawfully entitled to,” Rogers said.
Harris said Tuesday evening that it was “convenient” that the sheriff’s department is seeking the information the week after his defense attorney, Jim Bowman, filed a motion in Unicoi County Criminal Court alleging that Hensley had a sheriff’s department employee retype an endorsement letter from former Carter County sheriff John Henson to be used as a political ad when Hensley was seeking the office of sheriff in the August election. It is alleged that in November 2011, then-sheriff Harris had a departmental employee type a letter soliciting money for his attorneys’ fees during that employee’s working hours. This allegation led to Harris’ official misconduct charge in February 2012.
Harris called the firearms matter “continual harassment” from the sheriff’s department’s current administration and said “they are only telling half the story,” as Harris said guns bought with the drug fund were assigned to various people.
“It’s more of the same old witch hunt that they’ve been on since day one,” Harris said.
Those who have in their possession a firearm obtained from the former sheriff are asked to call Rogers at 388-0320 or Hensley at 388-0058 so that the guns may be compared to the list of firearms unaccounted for.Below is an earlier version of this story.
Some firearms that were given as gifts to various people by former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris may have been bought from the county drug fund and therefore could not be gifts, according to a year-long audit conducted by the sheriff's office.
In a news release from the Unicoi County Sheriff's Office, it was alleged that Harris, who resigned from his post as sheriff in 2012 after being charged with various felonies in 2011, gave people "several" guns as gifts.
This was discovered during the course of an internal audit into "several firearms that were purchased by former sheriff Kent Harris that are not accounted for," according to the news release.
Several of the missing guns were recovered from people who said Harris gave them as gifts.
According to the release, the guns were unable to be transferred without county commission approval."
Anyone with a gun obtained from Harris is asked to call UCSO Chief Deputy Frank Rogers at 423-388-0320 or Sheriff Mike Hensley at 423-388-0058 so that firearm can be compared to a list of unaccounted for firearms.
Read more on former sheriff Harris here, including his indictment on felony charges, his subsequent trial and upcoming trial on more charges.
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