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Details released on charges against sheriff

October 18th, 2011 2:10 am by Brad Hicks

A presentment document released Monday gives a little more information on some of the charges now faced by Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris following his indictment on 10 felony charges on Friday. The matter will be a topic of discussion for the Unicoi County Commission in the coming days.
On Friday, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felony charges, which included six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.
According to a release issued by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on Friday, the six counts of official misconduct are the result of incidences occurring on several dates in June and July of 2010 when Harris allegedly had Unicoi County inmates perform labor on property owned by him.
The presentment document states the address where these incidences allegedly occurred was 604 N. Mohawk Drive in Erwin. According to documents obtained from the Unicoi County Assessor of Property office, the deed to this property was transferred to Harris’ brother, Jason Harris, on June 3 of this year.
The document states that on or about Sept. 6, 2008, Harris committed the offense of tampering with evidence, with the TBI release stating that Harris altered or destroyed evidence that was part of investigation at this time. The presentment said this evidence involved moonshine.
On Sept. 7, 2008, investigators with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department stopped a truck driven by a North Carolina man and discovered that he was hauling more than 70 gallons of moonshine that he purchased in a clandestine manner in Unicoi County. The moonshine, along with the truck and cash found inside, was seized by the UCSD. A few days later, officials in Madison County, N.C., discovered a moonshine still after acting on information from Harris following an informant’s tip. It was initially believed that the confiscated moonshine may have come from this still.
According to the presentment, Harris committed the offense of criminal simulation in September 2008 by “making or altering a memorandum requesting payment from the county for vehicles valued at $4,500 that were actually donated.” The theft over $1,000 also occurred in September 2008 when Harris received $4,500 belonging to the county, according to the presentment.
The presentment states that Harris’ charge of attempted aggravated assault was the result of his confrontation with Unicoi County resident J.D. Henley. This followed a July meeting of the county’s finance committee and, according to the TBI release, Harris was charged after attempting to assault Hensley with a deadly weapon. This weapon, according to the presentment, was a cane carried by Harris.
District Attorney General Tony Clark said Friday that Harris’ charges stem from a pair of TBI investigations, one initiated in 2009 and the other in 2010, that overlapped and were eventually combined. According to the TBI, the agency began the investigation into allegations of misconduct against Harris in September 2010 after being requested by Clark’s office.
The TBI presented the case to the grand jury, Clark said Friday.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the situation involving the sheriff will be a topic of discussion following Monday’s meeting of the Unicoi County Commission. At that time, Lynch said commissioners will meet with County Attorney Doug Shults in a closed client/attorney session to discuss options and possibilities in the matter. One of these possibilities is the ouster of the sheriff.
Lynch said he met with Shults on Friday afternoon after the indictments came down and on Monday morning. Lynch said, per his interpretation of his discussions with Shults, that the attorney general can initiate ouster proceedings against Harris by filing documents in court. This process, Lynch said, would entail more investigation and depositions possibly leading up to an ouster hearing. Lynch said Shults intends to maintain contact with Clark throughout the week.
“The county attorney wants to work and make sure they are working in conjunction with each other,” Lynch said. “The county attorney also says after an official has been indicted, it is the county attorney’s responsibility to start looking into that particular proceeding and that’s what he’s doing.”
Should the state decide not to pursue the ouster, the county commission can still seek the ouster. Lynch said according to his interpretation of his discussions with Shults, if this scenario were to occur, the cost of the proceedings would fall to the county.
“If the district attorney were to decide not to move forward with it and the county commission wanted our county attorney to move forward with it, then we would have to pick up the tab for the investigation and depositions and things like that,” Lynch said.
During ouster proceedings, Lynch said a motion can also be filed for a judge overseeing the matter to request the defendant be suspended from their duties until the matter is resolved. If that was to occur here, Lynch said Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins would become the acting sheriff.
If a judge was to ultimately rule in favor of an ouster, Lynch said it would then be up to the county commission to appoint a new sheriff.
“It’s still a long, long way from indictment to conviction,” Lynch said. “In the meantime, the sheriff is still the sheriff until something else is filed.
“This by no means is an indication that there will be an ouster, but this will give people the knowledge going forward as to what could possibly happen.”
And although the county commission’s meeting with the county attorney will take place behind closed doors, Lynch said the county promises to provide the public with whatever information it can.
“I don’t want at any point anyone to think that there would be information withheld from the public,” Lynch said. “We will make sure the public is informed as we go through this, and that the county commissioners are informed as we get information here.”
Neither Harris nor his attorney Jim Bowman could be reached Monday for comment. UCSD Administrative Assistant Robie Sullins said the department is declining to comment on the matter at this time.
Harris was issued a summons in lieu of an arrest following Friday’s indictment. While Harris was not arrested, he must appear for processing within the next 10 days, according to the TBI. As of Monday afternoon, Harris had not yet reported.
Harris is scheduled to appear in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Nov. 22.
“This is just a very unfortunate event in our county history, and I do hope that in the end we will know all the truth and that all dignity to be restored will be restored,” Lynch said.

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