Unicoi County Sheriff Harris booked on latest charge

Brad Hicks • Feb 25, 2012 at 10:06 AM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris reported to the Unicoi County Jail on Friday morning for booking and processing on the latest charge levied against him.

On Feb. 16, a Unicoi County grand jury returned a true bill charging Harris with an additional count of official misconduct. According to the grand jury presentment document filed in Unicoi County Criminal Court, on or about Nov. 11, Harris had an employee of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department use departmental equipment and supplies to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his attorneys’ fees during that employee’s working hours.

According to a release issued by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on Feb. 16, Harris’ attorneys were served with a criminal summons. From that date, Harris had 10 days to report to the jail for booking and processing.

Harris reported to the jail at 10:30 a.m. Friday and left the jail at 10:40 a.m., according to jail records. He is scheduled to make an initial appearance of the latest charge March 27 in Criminal Court.

TBI Special Agent in Charge Jason Locke previously said the procedure is a recordkeeping process. He said information obtained during the booking process is entered into the TBI’s database in Nashville and is forwarded to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.

Harris previously went through the booking process Oct. 20, six days after a grand jury returned 10 true bills charging him 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.

At a Feb. 7 hearing in Criminal Court, Harris pleaded not guilty to these charges. He is set to begin trial on the theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation charges July 30.

On Monday, the Unicoi County Commission is set to discuss the sheriff’s department and consider a request from Harris to return the temporary disability benefits previously turned over to the county by the sheriff.

Following an August 2010 fall from the jail roof, Harris began receiving weekly checks from workers’ compensation. In all, Harris received 21 of these checks totaling $17,671.50, the last of which he received in January 2011.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the county’s workers’ compensation carrier ceased these checks when County Attorney Doug Shults notified the carrier that Harris should not be receiving the payment due to being an elected official.

Lynch also said Harris never cashed any of these checks and turned them over to the county as soon as he received them. Lynch said Friday this money was put into a reserve account and that he was told on the “front end” that Harris would get the funds as part of a disability settlement if he was to retire. Lynch said he was also told if Harris did not retire, this money would go back to the workers’ compensation insurance carrier.

Lynch said he believes that since that money has been requested to be returned, it will go to Harris, the county’s insurance carrier and Harris’ labor attorney.

“I think it’ll be part of a settlement, so to speak, because the money rightfully belongs to the insurance company but they’ll relinquish it to (Harris),” he said.

The Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System has previously requested retirement information for Harris from Lynch’s office. On a TCRS document to calculate retirement benefits, Harris marked March 1 as the effective date of his retirement, Lynch said. However, that does not indicate Harris plans to retire effective on that date, as Lynch said the date marked on the form is subject to change.

Bruce Shine, Harris’ labor attorney, previously said when an employee files an application for retirement benefits through TCRS to determine eligibility, they can mark a projected date of retirement up to five months in advance. Shine said Harris’ application process began some time ago and a date was entered for the purpose of determining eligibility.

Lynch said he is of the opinion that the money erroneously paid to Harris was not for the sheriff while working, but instead was for him while he’s not going to be able to work. He said the request for the return of this funding may signify Harris is looking to retire.

“He could continue (as sheriff) but, of course, that’s a sign that he’s not going to continue,” Lynch said. “That’s a sign he’s getting ready to retire on disability. That’s exactly why that’s on (the agenda) at this point, because of the speculation that he’s going to retire.”

Harris could not be reached Friday afternoon for comment.

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