Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Probation granted in theft from township

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBIA TWP. — Former Township Administrator James Harmon, who admitted to orchestrating one of the biggest thefts of public funds ever seen in Hamilton County, was granted a shock probation motion Tuesday.

        Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Marie Tracey granted the motion but is expected to impose stringent conditions on Mr. Harmon, 66, who will appear before her at 10:30 a.m. Monday. He will be released from the Pickaway Correctional Institution near Orient, Ohio.

  Conditions of probation imposed by Judge Ann Marie Tracey state that James Harmon must:
• Reside in a halfway house for six months after his release or perform 2,000 hours of community service.
• Remain out of public office.
• Make restitution of $109,912 to the Public Employees Retirement System; $105,079 in restitution to the township, plus $9,000 to cover part of the cost of the investigation into the theft.

        The entry, signed by the judge states: “After considering the nature of (Mr. Harmon's) conduct, his poor health and that of his wife, for whom he is caretaker, his remorse and the steps he has taken to indicate same, the time he has served incarcerated to date, ... the Court finds the motion to be well taken, and it is granted.”

        Judge Tracey declined to say more Tuesday.

        Restitution to the township and cost of the investigation was made last week through a bank check received by the township from Mr. Harmon's wife, Emma Jean Harmon.

        Township Attorney Norman A. Murdock said restitution to PERS “has not been made and a resolution of that matter needs to be made” to meet the requirements of the probation.

        “As far as (Columbia) Township trustees are concerned, it was put into the hands of Judge Tracey. They have confidence in her judgment and have no complaint about her decision. He made the township whole (with the restitution). That was their principal concern.”

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said he would have preferred that Mr. Harmon serve the full three-year jail term.

        “But Judge Tracey did impose stringent restrictions on him. We understand and accept the judge's ruling.”

        Former township trustees Michael Tighe and William Vitale came to the Enquirer in 1996 with concerns about Mr. Harmon's salary, which rose from $32,500 in 1990 to $107,000 in 1995. Their revelations to the newspaper led to an investigation by the Hamilton County sheriff and state auditor's office that culminated in 1999 with a guilty plea from Mr. Harmon.

        The investigation also revealed improper contracts for Mr. Harmon's friends and even a personalized license plate for the car he bought with township money.

        Following an appeal of his sentence, Mr. Harmon began serving the three-year prison term in April.

        Mr. Tighe and Mr. Vitale declined comment about the shock probation order.

        The scandal has led to changes in township procedures for handling money. Trustees President Paul Davis said sound and practical policies have been implemented and are being followed by employees.

        The nearly two-year investigation 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, a former township maintenance supervisor, 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 has paid $4,500 in investigation costs. Mrs. Huff paid $8,346 and Mr. Huff $7,236 in restitution, officials said.


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