ERWIN — A support meeting for embattled Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris will be held at some point in the coming weeks, but some in the community are opposed to one of the aspects of the planned gathering.
The support meeting was originally scheduled for this Saturday but has since been pushed back. A letter dated Nov. 30 was sent to Harris’ friends and supporters inviting them to the now-postponed gathering. The letter states coffee and biscuits were to be served. It also states that attendees would have the opportunity to sign petitions in support of Harris.
But it’s an item in the middle of that letter that has some up in arms. Here, the letter says those interested in making donations to Harris’ legal fund can do so.
“If you would like to make a donation please write check to: Kent Harris Legal Fund, c/o Kathy Harris,” the letter states.
The letter also gave those unable to make a monetary contribution but interested in supporting the sheriff an opportunity to join the group voicing its support for him, The Citizens in Support of Sheriff David Kent Harris. The letter was signed by Harris’ mother, Kathy Harris, treasurer of the group supporting Harris.
John Day, spokesman for the Unicoi County Citizens for Good Governance, a local watchdog group, said he received a copy of the letter from a friend who had received it via mail and had heard about the planned support meeting from others in the community.
In an email Day sent to members of his group, several county commissioners and the media, Day calls the planned fundraising efforts on behalf of Harris “despicable” and questions if such efforts violate state ethics laws.
“Sheriff Harris’ request for the citizens of Unicoi County, the people who he is alleged to have wronged in the 10 felony charges, to pay his legal fees is not only a despicable act but may violate Tennessee Statutes Title 8, Public Officers and Employees, Chapter 17, Ethical Standards for Officials and Employees,” Day’s email states.
Day said he feels a public official taking money for legal fees garnered through fundraising efforts “pushes the envelope on ethics.”
As the investigation of Harris continues, TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm confirmed that TBI officials were in Unicoi County late last week and seized a computer from the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. Helm said the seizure is part of an ongoing TBI probe concerning the UCSD but could not elaborate on the reason for the seizure of the computer or what information from it is being sought by investigators.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he has been in contact with County Attorney Doug Shults regarding the planned support gathering. He said Shults will research the issue and make a determination on it later this week.
“He’ll determine if there is a problem and, if there is, we’ll address it,” Lynch said. Harris said the meeting planned for this weekend has been postponed due to the upcoming holidays. He said the gathering will likely be rescheduled for sometime after the new year.
The focus of the meeting and his group of supporters is not on his criminal charges but rather on efforts to keep him in office, Harris said. He said funds raised from the support gathering would not be used to pay attorneys representing him in his criminal case, but would instead be used to pay a retained attorney who would represent him should ouster proceedings be initiated.
Harris also said many of his supporters in the community had asked how they could help.
“I think in America, if somebody wants to make a donation for a specific cause, they have the right to do so,” Harris said.
Harris said members of the group supporting him feel he should remain in office until the resolution of the charges against him. Day’s group, however, has a different stance. Day said he feels the sheriff should step aside from his duties until his trial has concluded.
“I think Kent needs to be ousted,” Day said. “I don’t think he’s fit for service based on what I’ve seen.”
Harris continues to receive treatment for injuries suffered in an August 2010 fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail. On Oct. 14, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felonies, including six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, theft over $1,000, attempted aggravated assault and criminal simulation.
District Attorney General Tony Clark previously said charges against Harris stem from a pair of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigations that overlapped and were eventually combined.