Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Harmon repays funds, fees

$114,079 check covers stolen Columbia Township money

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Seventeen months after James Harmon admitted orchestrating one of the biggest thefts of public funds ever seen in Hamilton County, the taxpayers of Columbia Township have their money back.

        Mr. Harmon, who began serving a three-year prison term in April, has sent a check for $114,079 to the township. It included restitution of $105,079, plus Mr. Harmon's $9,000 share of the cost of the investigation that led to his 1999 conviction on charges of theft in office and tampering with evidence.

        Township Attorney Norman A. Murdock said he received a bank check from Mr. Harmon's wife, Emma Jean Harmon, last week.

        Mr. Harmon, 66, was convicted for spending public money on a $75,000 raise for himself, improper contracts for his friends and even a personalized license plate for the car he bought with township money.

        He also was accused of receiving $109,000 in improper payments from the state retirement system. He was ordered to repay those funds, too. But state officials, citing confidentiality rules, have declined to say if restitution has been made.

        Mr. Harmon went to prison in April to serve a three-year sentence imposed by Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Marie Tracey. He remains in the Pickaway Correctional Institution near Orient, Ohio.

        Joe Andrews, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said Mr. Harmon is eligible for a shock probation hearing early next month. Township trustees President Paul Davis said Monday that officials are “overjoyed we have received restitution payment.” He said the money has been placed into the township's general fund.

        Mr. Murdock said the money was received after he filed a motion with the court that Judge Tracey order restitution be made from periodic retirement checks Mr. Harmon receives from the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

        The scandal, first reported by the Enquirer in 1996, has led to changes in township procedures for handling money.

        “We have established sound and practical policies that our employees follow,” Mr. Davis said. “Nothing is foolproof, but we feel good about the progress we have made in oversight of our operations, in providing service to our citizens, and protecting their tax dollars.”

        The nearly two-year investigation by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and the state auditor into township operations also resulted in charges against Mr. Harmon's daughter, Debra Huff, and her husband, Jeffrey Huff.

        Mrs. Huff was accused of hiring a relative under a false

        name when she was township clerk. She also was charged with falsifying time sheets.

        Jeffrey Huff is a former township maintenance supervisor who was charged with using his position to personally contract with residents to perform work while he was employed by the township.

        The Huffs pleaded guilty to theft in office and tampering with records. They were sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service and were ordered to pay restitution to the township and a share of investigation costs.

        Each paid $4,500 in investigation costs. Mrs. Huff paid $8,346 and Mr. Huff $7,236 in restitution, officials said.

        Prosecutors described the case as one of the largest thefts of public money in Hamilton County in years.

        The allegations surfaced in 1996 when some township officials raised concerns about Mr. Harmon's salary, which rose from $32,500 in 1990 to $107,000 in 1995. At the time, Mr. Harmon defended the pay.

        “I assumed these people knew what I was making and were rewarding me for doing a good job,” he said then. “They gave me raises ... I do not feel guilty.”


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