ERWIN — The state attorney general’s office announced Wednesday it has decided not to pursue ouster proceedings against Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris.
The office of Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. issued a release Wednesday afternoon explaining the reasons for opting not to try to oust the sheriff, who faces 11 felony charges.
“This Office has remained in regular contact with (District Attorney General Tony Clark) since receiving his request for assistance in October,” the release states. “These official misconduct charges contained in the initial indictment, while serious, were based on facts that were too old to be used for ouster.
“We have been reviewing the new indictment of February 16 to see if it would support ouster, but the sheriff’s decision to retire makes that moot.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said Harris’ effective retirement date is today, but said nothing official had yet been submitted to his office. While he said an announcement could be made at some point today, Lynch said the day may also pass without an announcement.
However, Lynch said officials are anticipating Harris’ retirement and said he expects a special called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission to be held soon after word of Harris’ retirement to discuss the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.
When asked is he was planning to announce retirement, Harris, in a text message response, said he has meetings set for today and that his labor attorney, Bruce Shine of Kingsport, is working on a letter to finalize it after these meetings. Harris referred further questions to Shine.
Harris also declined to comment on the decision from the attorney general’s office, instead referring comments to Shine. Shine could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Blake Fontenay, communications director for the Tennessee Department of the Treasury, said Harris’ retirement through the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System was effective as of Wednesday and that Harris is set to receive his first pension check on March 30. Fontenay also said if Harris is convicted of a felony related to his job duties, future benefits from the TCRS would cease. These regulations are outlined in Section (a)(3) of Tennessee Code Annotated 8-35-124, Fontenay said.
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, attempted aggravated assault, theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation.
According to the grand jury presentment document filed in Unicoi County Criminal Court and released the following week, the official misconduct charges referred to in Wednesday’s statement from Cooper’s office pertain to Harris’ alleged use of inmates to perform labor on property located at 604 N. Mohawk Drive in Erwin, which at the time was owned by the sheriff. The presentment document states these incidents occurred on several different dates in June and July 2010.
At a Feb. 7 hearing in Criminal Court, Harris pleaded not guilty to all charges levied against him from the grand jury’s October session. He is set to begin trial on the theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation charges on July 30.
On Feb. 16, the grand jury returned a true bill charging Harris with an additional count of official misconduct. According to the presentment document, on or about Nov. 11, Harris had a UCSD employee use departmental equipment and supplies to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his attorneys’ fees during that employee’s working hours.
Harris reported to the Unicoi County Jail last Friday for booking and processing on this latest charge and is scheduled to make an initial appearance in Criminal Court on this charge on March 27.
The charges levied against Harris recently led to the Regional Organized Crime Information Center to pull surveillance equipment, used in drug investigations, from the UCSD. The issue was brought up by Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas at Monday’s meeting of the panel. Thomas said he had heard the equipment, which is loaned to departments registered with ROCIC at no cost, was pulled due to the organization’s concerns with Harris’ charges.
UCSD Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins confirmed the department did return the equipment several weeks ago, but told commissioners UCSD officials were in the process of getting it returned.
Adkins said Wednesday that efforts to get the surveillance equipment back were successful and the items are on their way back to the department.
“Since the day we first lost use of the equipment, we have been working to have the department reinstated and the equipment restored to use,” Adkins said. “We were notified by the ROCIC yesterday that we’ve been reinstated and can once again use the equipment needed to do Unicoi County drug operations.”
Representatives with the ROCIC could not be reached Wednesday.
Following Harris’ indictment in October, the County Commission opted to take a “wait-and-see” approach with regard to the direction the attorney general’s office was going to take in Harris’ possible ouster. An online petition was started in January by John Day, spokesman for the Unicoi County Citizens for Good Governance, to urge quicker action on the ouster from Cooper’s office. That petition garnered more than 200 signatures.