Ethics Commission acts against Harris

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 8, 2001

The Alabama State Ethics Commission has decided to take administrative action against Butler County Sheriff Diane Harris. That decision was announced during the commission’s

monthly meeting in Montgomery on Wednesday. The decision comes as a result of two complaints filed against Harris.

According to Chief Ethics Investigator Charles Aldridge, Harris had to first &uot;own up to all the charges.&uot;

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&uot;She (Harris) first had to sign a statement admitting to all the charges as they were alleged in the complaints before an administrative resolution would be considered by the commission,&uot; Aldridge said after the Wednesday meeting.

With several witnesses on standby in nearby rooms, the Ethics Commission met in an executive session to hear all the evidence gathered by commission investigators, following complaints filed that Harris had committed violations of ethics laws.

After consideration of the preponderance of evidence, and without calling any witnesses in to speak, the commission called for the meeting to again be opened, and decided by vote the course of action they would take regarding 20 allegations of wrongdoing by the sheriff.

&uot;After considering all of the evidence presented to us this morning, I motion that we handle these two complaints against Diane Harris, sheriff of Butler County, administratively,&uot; said Ethics Commissioner Russell Jackson Drake. The motion received a second by Commissioner John H. Watson.

The action received unanimous consent in a vote by the full commission of Drake, Watson, Commission Chairman Lewis G. Odom Jr., Commissioner Harold Sorrells and Commissioner Raymond L. Bell Jr.

The action is a final resolution, pending approval by either the district attorney of the local jurisdiction or the attorney general's office, and is in response to complaints filed by Noah H. Flowers Jr., dated March 3, 2001, and Cynthia M. Wacha, dated July 2, 2001.

Flowers had alleged in his complaint that Harris had &uot;used her county-provided vehicle for personal use, by traveling to Navarre Beach, Fla., during the summer of 2000.&uot;

Flowers also alleged Harris &uot;would frequently use her county vehicle for trips to Montgomery with her roommate, Shelia Sellers, to conduct personal business, and also to transport Sellers to the doctor's office and Veterans Administration Hospital, during other than emergency situations.&uot;

Another allegation made by Flowers was that Harris used her office for personal gain by &uot;receiving a certificate of degree in KarateDo, for which she gave in return a deputy sheriff badge and identification card. She then had a feature article reported of the same in The Greenville Advocate on Wed. Jan. 24, 2001, stating she had been taking the course for five years.&uot;

Flowers also stated in his complaint that Harris had been &uot;using her office to sell items for her roommate, by selling fish aquariums with plants, and flax seed' pads for relief of pain.&uot;

In her complaint, Cynthia M. Wacha, who resigned as chief clerk of the Butler County Sheriff's Office in July, alleged several improprieties regarding the sheriff.

&uot;Sheriff Harris paid for her roommate Shelia Sellers' Southern Linc' (radio-telephone) with county funds, in the total amount of $624.63, over a five-month period,&uot; said Wacha who said she provided receipts to prove to the commission that the funds were drafted from Butler County funds.

Wacha also complained was that Harris &uot;used county funds for purchase of personal items from Sam's Wholesale Club in Montgomery&uot; and the &uot;use of monies for Pepsi and cookie sales at the jail for personal use.&uot;

Harris was further accused in that complaint for &uot;spending a check donated by (singer) Jett Williams in the amount of $500 for campaign funds to finance a trip to Navarre Beach, Fla.&uot;

Wacha also stated in her complaint that while she was working as chief clerk, she was required to &uot;write pre-dated receipts to produce to state auditors to cover money donated to the Greenwood Church of God in Christ, in the amount of $30, and to the Greenville High School Band in the amount of $30.&uot; Receipts for these were also provided to the commission, according to Wacha.

Also alleged was that Harris received &uot;reimbursement of money from the county for a shop vacuum, as if it were purchased out-of-pocket, when money from the cookie fund' was sent over to pay for it from the jail.&uot;

Harris was also alleged in the complaint of allowing her roommate to use an office e-mail account,, for her own personal use.

In addtion, Wacha wrote a letter to the Ethics Commission explaining that while the county was paying for Sellers' Southern Linc', two deputies in addition to Wacha were all required to purchase the same radios for official use out of personal funds, including a total of nearly $120 initially, plus a monthly service fee of nearly $70.

&uot;The Sheriff said she was providing Sellers' Linc radio because she (Sellers) was secretary of the Butler County Sheriff's Reserve and Auxiliary n I was a also member, but was required as part of my job as chief clerk, to have and maintain a Linc radio, even to have it on at home, so I could be reached 24 hours a day,&uot; Wacha said. &uot;The captain of the Reserve and Auxiliary did not even have a unit.&uot;

Wacha said she felt like the people of Butler County have been misled, and their trust violated.

&uot;She (Harris) mentioned to me that rumors came back to her questioning my loyalty to her while I was working for her,&uot; said Wacha. &uot;My point is that she is actually the one that violated trust n that of the citizens of Butler County, those that had faith in her when they voted her into office.&uot;

The process at this point, as explained by Aldridge, now requires the resolution of the case be sent to the district attorney of the local jurisdiction.

&uot;Once approved by the District Attorney, Harris will be required to pay Commission-ordered fines and restitution before the case will be resolved,&uot; Aldridge said. &uot;But it is important to understand, the people that brought forth these charges are not to be likened with Judas'. In fact, they did what the law requires of any citizen in the State of Alabama n they reported wrongdoing.&uot;

John Andrews, district attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit, said Thursday afternoon that he had not yet received any word from the Ethics Commission.

&uot;Before I could make any comment on the case, I would have to review the findings and the case file from the Ethics Commission,&uot; Andrews said. &uot;I have not yet received that information.&uot;

Daniel Robinson, chairman of the Butler County Commission, said he, too, would wait until the Commission is notified of the decision.

&uot;It would be premature for me to make any comment regarding the ethics case against Sheriff Harris before we received any notice from them, and I don't believe we will receive anything until after the District Attorney's Office has ruled on the matter,&uot; Robinson said. &uot;But we will be consulting with the County's attorney and looking into the matter very carefully n we will have to make sure the citizens' interests are seen to properly.&uot;

Contacted at her office Thursday, Harris said she was advised by her attorney to refrain from making any comments, and in fact given parameters of what she should and should not say.

&uot;There are some things that I could say, and plenty that I want to say, but I am afraid that once I got started, I might cross over the line into matters against the advice of my attorney Mays Jemison in Montgomery n so I am going to have to refer any questions to him,&uot; Harris said.

Jemison could not be reached for comment prior to press time.