ERWIN — A Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills on Friday afternoon charging Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris with 10 felony charges.
The charges include six counts of official misconduct, and one count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.
District Attorney General Tony Clark said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation presented the case to the grand jury and that subpoenaed witnesses presented testimony in court on Friday. Clark said Harris was served with a criminal summons on the indictments late Friday afternoon.
“We worked diligently on these to get them presented to the grand jury today, so they were all presented today and there was a true bill returned on all counts,” Clark said.
Clark said the charges stem from a pair of TBI investigations — one initiated in 2009 and the other in 2010 — that overlapped and were eventually combined, he said. According to a TBI release, the agency began the investigation into allegations of misconduct made against Harris in September 2010 after being requested by the Clark’s office.
The TBI release states the six counts of official misconduct stem from incidences on June 23-24, June 30, July 12-13, July 15, July 17 and July 19 of 2010 when Harris allegedly had inmates at the Unicoi County Jail perform labor on property located on North Mohawk Drive that the sheriff owns.
Harris also altered or destroyed a record related to evidence or the evidence that was part of an investigation on Sept. 6, 2008, which resulted in the tampering with evidence charge, the TBI said.
Harris made or altered a memo requesting payment from Unicoi County for a vehicle that was donated to the county resulting in the criminal simulation charge, the TBI release states. The theft incident occurred on Sept. 23, 2008, when Harris received $4,500 that was property of the county, according to the TBI.
Harris was charged with attempted aggravated assault for attempting to assault a man with a deadly weapon on July 21 of this year, according to the TBI. This incident followed a meeting of the Unicoi County’s Finance Committee, when Harris confronted Unicoi County resident J.D. Hensley.
Clark said the TBI intended to arrest Harris, however he said Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown did not feel that move would be prudent in the case. Clark said the TBI and district attorney general’s office opposed Brown’s decision.
“Judge Brown said that was his decision, that it’s his call,” Clark said. “I respectfully disagreed with him and he respectfully disagreed with me, and a summons was issued in lieu of an arrest and that’s the only explanation he gave me.”
Although Harris was not arrested, Clark said the sheriff must report to the Unicoi County Jail at some point for booking and fingerprinting. According to the TBI, Harris must appear in court within 10 days to be processed. Harris is scheduled to appear in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Nov. 22.
Clark said he has taken no personal pleasure in pursuing the case and that the case has proven to be a difficult one.
“This has been a long case,” Clark said. “There has been a lot of speculation and rumors flying around Unicoi County. I live in this county. It’s been very difficult. People have said that people were being drugged, things were being covered up. That’s not the case. The TBI did a very thorough investigation.
“It has been very difficult, it has not been an easy thing for anybody here. Sheriff Harris was a friend. I’ve known him for years, but I have a job to do. I took an oath to do what was right. I’m not saying Sheriff Harris is guilty of anything, but we certainly had the evidence, I thought, to present this case to the grand jury and that’s what we did.”
Information gleaned from witness testimony on Friday could result in other charges for Harris, Clark said.
“There is some ongoing investigation as to some other matters we’re looking into as a result of some things that came to light today,” he said.
Clark also said some witnesses offering testimony have been threatened and harassed. This activity, he said, will not be tolerated by his office and violators will be charged “without hesitation.”
Harris could not be reached Friday for comment.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he was unable to comment on the matter at this time.
Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Sue Jean Wilson said the matter will be a topic of discussion at the County Commission’s planning session on Oct. 24. Wilson also said a meeting between the commissioners and County Attorney Doug Shults has been requested to see what advice Shults can offer as far as the next steps that may need to be taken.
“People are innocent until proven guilty and with none of (the commissioners) being attorneys and never having faced anything like this, we must be very careful,” Wilson said. “We want the citizens to know that we are being proactive of what is expected of us and will set up some sort of time frame for whatever steps we have to go through.”