John Harmon "Not Guilty," Johnson Jury says; "Justice was done," John Kirk says

PAINTSVILLE—After the smoke had cleared from a two-day heat of battle in which the Commonwealth presented a variety of witnesses in an effort to convict Martin County Magistrate, John Harmon, of an alleged crime that would have mandated a prison sentence of 1-5 years, a 12-person jury needed only approximately 90 minutes to render its “Not Guilty” verdict. Following the Foreperson’s announcement of the verdict, Commonwealth Attorney, Tony Skeans, asked that the jury be polled and each juror responded one-by-one saying, “Not Guilty.”

Harmon, Chairman of the Big Sandy Regional Detention Center Board at the time, was charged in a May 19, 2010 indictment of “Committing the offense of Theft By Unlawful Taking Over $300.00 by knowingly and unlawfully submitting travel vouchers for unauthorized travel and expenses, including travel to and from Martin County outside of jail business and unauthorized travel to conferences with related expenses.” The indictment charged that the trips occurred “from January 18, 2007 through March 2009.” Approximately $6,000 was in issue, about $2,000 for 4-day conferences at Owensboro and Bowling Green in different years and $4,000 for other travel, much of it for trips from Harmon’s home at Pilgrim to the jail.

Harmon’s indictment was followed a day later by an Order from Circuit Judge, John David Preston, that stated, “IT IS ORDERED that the Defendant shall not set foot on Big Sandy Regional Detention Center’s Property. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Defendant is to have no contact directly or indirectly with any Big Sandy Regional Detention Center’s employees, inmates or board members or any other jail or detention center in the State of Kentucky.”

Following issuance of the Order, Harmon resigned from his position as Chairman of the Jail Board. Harmon had served on the Board from January 1998 through December 2004 and from October 2005 until his resignation in May 2010. Members of the Jail Board Commission, like Harmon, receive no salary or compensation for their service, a service that requires attendance of regular monthly and special meetings. Harmon’s wife, Debbie, an employee at the jail for the previous 22 months, also left her job. “The indictment and the judge’s Order were like getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer,” Harmon would later say. “We did not see it coming. We had no idea. We knew we had done nothing to deserve it.”

Nelson Sparks, testifying for the State, said that he was the legal advisor for the Board and that there was no authority for Harmon or any other board member to be paid for travel to the jail except to attend the Board’s regular monthly meetings, adding that board members “had no more authority than a person off the street to visit the jail outside of regular meetings” and that payment for such travel to Harmon was not legal. Sparks admitted under cross-examination that he, Sparks, had a right to be reimbursed for his mileage because doing that was “implied” in the policy manual.

Kentucky State Police Detective, Ben Kramer, was the state’s first witness and testified that an investigation of activities at the Regional Jail was precipitated by Johnson County Judge-Executive, Tucker Daniel, and the Center’s bookkeeper, Avanell Vanhoose. Daniel was not called to testify, but Vanhoose was called by the state and testified that only John Harmon of the several Regional Jail Board Members, was paid for travel other than trips to the regular monthly meetings.

On cross examination by Harmon’s attorney, John Kirk, Vanhoose admitted that other board members and jail personnel were paid for travel mileage, including another member from Martin County, Garland Muncy.

In what defense counsel called an “ambush,” the Commonwealth announced on Friday before the trial that it had agreed to a deal with Henry “Butch” Williams and that he would be testifying for the State. Williams, formerly the Administrator of the Regional Jail, a position with a $50,000 annual salary, was indicted in May 2010 and charged with “Bribery of a Public Servant” and that “while being administrator of the Big Sandy Regional Detention Center he solicited, accepted and agreed to accept a motor vehicle from Doug Wright for the transfer of Angie Wright from the Grant County Jail to the Big Sandy Regional Detention Center.” Bribery of a Public Servant is a Class C Felony and carries a 5-10 year prison term plus a possible fine of $10,000. Williams continued as Jail Supervisor following his May indictment until he was fired late last year.

Under the terms of Williams’s deal with the Commonwealth, the charges against him were amended to “abusing public trust,” a Class D Felony carrying a possible jail term of 1-5 years, and “official misconduct,” a misdemeanor. Additionally, the Commonwealth agreed as part of the deal that it would make no recommendation to the Court regarding sentencing.

With Williams’s and the State’s agreement on the Friday before trial, the State could call him as its witness, something it could not do with criminal charges pending and his trial coming up on January 24 unless Williams agreed to testify.

In Harmon’s trial, Williams testified that Harmon visited the jail often, had no reason to be there and would only stay there for “five to ten minutes.” He testified that Harmon would often get a sandwich and “head for the golf course.”

Harmon’s attorney, John Kirk, assured the jury in his opening statement that Harmon would testify and respond to each and every allegation and when Harmon did testify his story, according to some jurors who commented off the record after the trial, was convincing.

For starters, Harmon testified that his jail board service began thirteen years ago in January 1998 when Martin County Judge/Executive, Kelly Callaham, asked him to serve on the Jail Board. “Although the job did not pay anything, I was happy to serve,” Harmon said, “but I would not do it again,” he added. Harmon testified that following his appointment in 1998 “the phone at our house rang day and night, usually a parent wanting something done about the jail, some problem there. I found myself making trip after trip over there to do what I could do to help,” he said, testifying that during his six-year tenure he made numerous 50-mile trips to the jail, trips for which he was not paid. Harmon also testified that he would drive his pickup truck to the jail, get “jail boys” and haul them to Martin County to work on public projects and, on one occasion, to renovate the Rufus Reed Library. Harmon testified that he would make the 50-mile trip from his home, get the “jail boys,” take them to Martin County, supervise them for several hours, spend his own money for their food, then return them and come home, expending 10-12 hours each of those days and his own money for gas. “I was not paid for gas or for my truck or time,” he said.

After serving four years, in 2002 Martin County’s newly-elected judge, Dr. Lon Lafferty, asked Harmon to “keep on serving,” he testified, adding that “I was wore out from it and had spent a lot of money. I did not want to serve anymore and Debbie did not want me to, either, but after being asked a couple of times I agreed to do so for a while.” Harmon testified that he served for two additional years, through 2004. “Same thing, lots of time and money spent, but when I quit after serving those six years I thought I had done a good job and that the jail was in good shape. I figured that was it and that I would not be serving again,” he said.

But, in late 2005, Harmon was again asked to serve, he testified. “H.D. Moore got sick and had to resign from the jail board,” he testified, “and Judge Callaham asked me to serve again. I really didn’t want to again, but finally agreed to, but only if I got paid a little something for some of my expenses,” he said. Again, Harmon agreed to serve without salary or additional compensation “except for gas money,” he said.

Harmon testified that there were many problems at the jail when he went back. “Drugs, drugs and more drugs were everywhere,” he said. “The place was overcrowded and there were so many problems it is hard to mention all of them. Butch (Jail Administrator Henry Williams) didn’t seem to care. I went over there many times to see him, but most of the time he was not even there. I would call and make an appointment and when I got there he would be gone most of the time. In the meantime our phone rang off the hook. As a Member of the Board, as a Chairman it was my responsibility to do everything I could do to clean the place up,” he testified, “but I was talking to people who did not want to hear it.”

The indictment against Harmon had two parts. “I want to talk to you about part two of the indictment first,” Kirk said to the jury in his closing. “John has been charged with an alleged crime and prison time for attending a four-day conference in Owensboro in 2007 and a four-day conference in Bowling Green in 2008 and getting paid for his travel there and for lodging.” Kirk reminded the jury that they had heard testimony from Detention Center employees that the conferences were state-wide events attended by representative from each of Kentucky’s 120 counties and also attended by eight representatives of the Big Sandy Detention Center. “Yes,” Kirk told the jury, “only John Harmon, Chairman of the Jail Board, was charged with a crime for going to these conferences. That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said, “is not Equal Protection Under Law.”

Regarding trips from Pilgrim to the jail for which he was paid, Kirk argued to the jury that Harmon, pursuant to his position, had a need and responsibility to see about the administration and conditions at the jail and “that it would be a poor Chairman of the Board who did not do so.” Kirk presented proof to the jury that others persons, including the Board’s attorney, got reimbursed for travel.

Kirk argued to the jury that, instead of charging Harmon, he should have been presented with an award. Kirk presented a poster to the jury showing that John had first served from January 1998 thought December 2004. “That’s 72 months, 312 weeks, 2190 days,” Kirk stressed, and “he was paid ‘Not A Dime For His Time,’” he emphasized. “He was paid nothing. On the contrary, it was John Harmon who paid, paid with his Time and with his Money.”

The Commonwealth, in its closing statement, acknowledged that it had not proved its case regarding the charge of unlawful trips to conferences, but argued forcefully that Harmon was guilty of getting “illegal pay” for “unauthorized and unnecessary travel from his home in Martin County to Paintsville, often for the purpose of playing golf,” but the jury saw things otherwise.

“John Harmon is a good man who only wanted to do something worthwhile for the people of Martin County,” his wife, Debbie, said. “There is no way he deserved to be treated like a criminal. I never dreamed that anybody could be treated this way. It was scary. It was like somebody was out to get us. I am glad this nightmare is over. John and I appreciate those who did the right thing, Garland Muncy for one, and our lawyers who got justice done. We will always be grateful to those who stood by us during this time,” she added.

The State was represented by Anna Melvin and Tony Skeans. John Harmon was represented by John Kirk, Jerry Patton and Howe Baker.

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