Former Big Sandy jail board chairman found not guilty in theft case

PAINTSVILLE — John Harmon, former board chairman for the Big Sandy Regional Detention Center, was found not guilty in Johnson Circuit Court on Wednesday of charges that he submitted vouchers for unauthorized travel and expenses to and from the jail.

The jury began deliberating about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and returned the verdict nearly two hours later before Judge John David Preston.

Harmon, who resigned from the jail board in early 2008 and was elected a Martin County magistrate in November, was charged last year with theft of $4,752 in unauthorized travel reimbursements in 2007 and 2008.

"I just want to thank the jurors because I was innocent," Harmon said afterward.

Harmon's attorney, John Kirk of Paintsville, said, "We are really thrilled that they have done justice to a good, good man."

Earlier Wednesday, Harmon told the jury he is a public servant and not a thief.

No one on the board of the Paintsville jail ever informed Harmon that getting mileage reimbursements for travel besides monthly trips to board meetings was prohibited, Harmon said.

Former jail administrator Henry "Butch" Williams, who pleaded guilty Friday to accepting a bribe from an inmate, testified in Harmon's trial that the board chairman made numerous trips to the jail and spent days at the golf course in Paintsville.

Harmon testified he made trips from his home in Martin County to the jail because of Williams' incompetence. Jail employees, inmates and board members approved of his frequent trips to the jail, he said.

"They welcomed me with open arms. They were always glad to see me," Harmon said.

He said he was trying to address problems of drugs, escapes, holes in walls and inmates sleeping on floors. He said Williams was difficult to find and was rarely at work.

"Not just me but all the board members did a fine job" in addressing problems, Harmon said.

The jail's retired bookkeeper kicked off the state police investigation, prosecutors said.

Avanell VanHoose told Harmon in 2007 his travel claims were inappropriate, and Harmon tried to have her fired, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Anthony Skeans said Wednesday in closing arguments. She was "the one person who had the gumption to stand up to John Harmon," Skeans said.

Harmon later fired the jail board's attorney, Nelson Sparks, after Sparks raised the issue in a meeting. Sparks testified at Harmon's trial that the board's bylaws prohibit board travel to the jail except for monthly meetings but said Harmon's travel expenses to conventions and conferences was "questionable" but not illegal.

After the verdict was announced, Skeans said he respects the jury's verdict and said it would affect ongoing investigations at the jail.

"All of public corruption is a serious matter," he said.

The charges against Harmon were the result of a wide-ranging state police investigation of inmate treatment, financial matters and employee behavior.

One former guard, Doug Muncy of Martin County, pleaded guilty in September to a charge of official misconduct, downgraded from misdemeanor sexual abuse of an inmate. Reprimands of Muncy said he molested an inmate on one occasion and on another occasion pulled down his pants and chased sheriff's deputies around the jail intake area. He received two years' probation and must pay a $1,000 fine, as well as refrain from seeking a corrections or police job for a year.

Williams was charged with accepting a pickup truck and cash from an inmate to have the inmate's wife transferred from another jail. Williams pleaded guilty on Friday and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 18.

Williams was suspended in May, and the jail board hired former federal corrections officer Randy Madan to replace him. The board last month fired Williams but has not officially hired Madan. A report by Madan shortly after he was hired detailed numerous problems and hazards at the jail, including blocked emergency doors, lax procedures for detecting drugs and contraband, insecure and unsafe transportation vans and other problems.

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