Skatepark project focus of indictment

NEW CUMBERLAND – In 2007, when he was running for mayor of Weirton, Mark E. Harris campaigned on the issue of opening a skate park for the city’s young people.

Harris was elected that year, and, true to his promise, the skate park opened two years later, in August 2009. But it wasn’t only the city’s disaffected skateboarders who benefited.

According to a Hancock County grand jury, Harris benefited from the extensive skate park fundraising efforts to the tune of $16,273.22.

The grand jury indicted Harris this week on three counts of embezzlement and one count of conspiracy. Harris’ wife, Nycole, also is named in the indictment as a co-conspirator.

Harris, 44, who now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and could not be reached for comment, is accused of stealing money that had been raised for the skate park project.

“There was a large amount of money that was unaccounted for,” Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis said.

Davis said the skate park was paid for with a state grant and donated money that went into a special city account with Harris’ name on it.

“He basically opened this account up. He was the only signatory,” Davis said.

The account was under the sole control of Harris, and funds from the account were used by Harris for his own benefit, Davis said.

According to contemporaneous news accounts, the skate park was paid for with a combination of $19,000 in state funds, $3,000 donated by Dr. Anna Suray, $3,000 donated by the Hancock County commissioners, $5,000 donated by the West Virginia delegates from Hancock County, $5,500 donated by Nick’s Auto, and money from various fundraisers.

After Harris left office – he served one term and chose not to run for re-election in 2011 – city officials became suspicious about missing funds, Davis said. The West Virginia Auditor’s Office conducted an investigative audit and turned the information over to the West Virginia State Police, which continued the investigation, Davis said.

West Virginia State Police Sgt. David Stafford testified before the grand jury this week.

The indictment alleges that Harris wrote three checks – one to himself, one to cash and one to his wife – from the skate park account and used the money for his own benefit.

“This (embezzled) money is all from that extra money that was raised,” Davis said.

Phone calls to the Weirton Municipal Building were referred to City Solicitor Vince Gurrera, who did not return a call seeking comment.

Davis said Harris must return to Hancock County to answer the charges. Bond has been set at $25,000 surety for Harris and $10,000 surety for his wife.

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