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Kent Harris indicted

The Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills on Friday afternoon, indicting Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris on six counts of official misconduct, as well as a count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.
All 10 counts are felony charges in the state of Tennessee.
Harris was served with a criminal summons on Friday, despite urging from District Attorney General Tony Clark that he be arrested by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
“The TBI had intended to arrest (Harris),” Clark told reporters outside the Unicoi County Courthouse Friday. “But Judge (Lynn) Brown did not feel that was prudent in this case, and issued a criminal summons in lieu of arrest.”
Clark said Harris must report to the jail at some point to be fingerprinted and booked, even though he will remain free until an arraignment hearing in criminal court next month. Clark added that TBI agents were present in the county to make the arrest, but the judge had the final say.
“I respectfully disagreed with him, and he respectfully disagreed with me,” Clark commented. “But ultimately, it was his decision.”
Clark said that Friday’s indictments stem from two separate investigations – one that began in 2009, and another in 2010 – that were eventually merged into one by the TBI. The DA’s office requested the investigations.
According to a news release from the TBI, the official misconduct counts stem from incidents on June 23-24, June 30, July 12-13, July 15, July 17 and July 19 of 2010. The TBI states that on those dates, Harris had inmates from the Unicoi County Jail “perform labor on property on North Mohawk Drive in Erwin, Tenn. that Harris owns.”
The TBI alleged that Harris also made or altered a memo requesting payment from Unicoi County for a vehicle that was donated, not sold, to the county, which resulted in the criminal simulation charge.
The charge of theft over $1,000 stemmed from an incident on Sept. 23, 2008, when the TBI said that Harris received and kept $4,500 in funds belonging to the county.
The attempted aggravated assault charge came as a result of a July 21, 2011, incident, in which Harris is accused of attempting to assault Unicoi County resident J.D. Hensley with a cane at a meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s finance committee.
The TBI also reported that on Sept. 6, 2008, Harris “altered or destroyed a record related to evidence or the evidence itself that was part of (an) investigation, which is considered tampering with evidence.”
Later, The Erwin Record obtained copies of the presentment document containing Harris’ charges and learned that the evidence he is accused of tampering with was moonshine.
Clark said further investigation based on new information learned from witness testimony on Friday could net more charges for the sheriff.
“We do not know at this point if there will be other charges,” Clark said.
Clark also indicated that witnesses who testified before the grand jury had to subpoenaed into court, and that some have already been verbally threatened or harassed. Further harassment of those witnesses, Clark said, would be dealt with severely.
“If there’s any threat or harassment (to) any one of the witnesses that we have utilized, we will charge those people without hesitation,” Clark said. “We are not going to tolerate that.”
Clark, who is a resident of the county, said the TBI investigation, as well as the case, have proven difficult for him.
“This has been a long case with a lot of speculations and rumors flying around,” Clark said. “The sheriff was a friend. I’ve known him for years, but I have a job to do. I took an oath. I swore to uphold the law, and I felt we had more than sufficient evidence to take this before the grand jury.”
Judge Brown set Harris’ arraignment hearing for Tuesday, Nov. 22, in Unicoi County Criminal Court.
Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Robie Sullins told the newspaper that the department is not prepared to make a statement or comment on Harris’ charges at this time.