Ex-mayor seeks dismissal of charges

NEW CUMBERLAND – Former Weirton Mayor Mark Harris is asking a judge to dismiss embezzlement charges against him because the money he is accused of stealing was not city property, according to documents filed in Hancock County Circuit Court.

Harris, 44, who now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was indicted by a Hancock County grand jury in September on three felony counts of embezzlement and one count of conspiracy in connection with the alleged theft of money intended for a skateboard park. Harris’ wife, Nycole, also is named in the indictment as a co-conspirator.

Harris is accused of stealing $16,273.22 that had been raised for the Weirton Skate Park – a pet project that Harris had campaigned on in 2007. The skate park, which opened in 2009, was paid for with a state grant and donated money that went into a special city account with Harris’ name on it.

The indictment alleges that Harris, who served as mayor from 2007 to 2011, wrote three checks from the skate park account in 2009 and used the money for his own benefit. Harris did not run for re-election in 2011.

After Harris left office, city officials became suspicious about funds missing from the account, prompting a two-year investigation by the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office and the West Virginia State Police.

“We were surprised by the fact that when we checked on the account, we thought there should be money in there but found out there wasn’t,” City Solicitor Vince Gurrera said.

“As soon as the city found out there was a situation with the account, we contacted the state authorities,” Gurrera said. “We didn’t believe it was something the city should be investigating.”

Gurrera said the skate park was a special project that was separate from the city’s regular budgetary process. “There wouldn’t have been any oversight (by the city),” he said.

Harris and his wife have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Harris’ attorney, William E. Galloway, of Weirton, said in recent court filings that the case should be dismissed because the allegations do not fit the state’s statutory definition of embezzlement.

“The property allegedly embezzled did not in fact belong to the city of Weirton, but, rather, belonged to … Harris, who had been told by city officials upon the advice of the auditor to place the money in a private bank account in his name,” according to the motion to dismiss.

The last known payment made from the account was $6,000 for the construction of a ramp at the skate park, according to an investigative report attached to the motion to dismiss.

“The money involved was private money … raised by … Harris for his skate park project,” the motion said.

The Weirton Police Department subpoenaed records relating to the “Mark Harris Skate Park Fund” from Huntington Bank in September 2011. In a separate motion, Galloway is asking that evidence obtained through the subpoena be suppressed because it was not obtained through a search warrant.

“A (circuit court) clerk is not a judge or magistrate, and a subpoena is not a search warrant supported by probable cause,” the motion to suppress said.

No hearing date has been set for the defense motions, Galloway said.

In a related matter, Hancock County Circuit Court Judge Martin J. Gaughan and Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis have both recused themselves from the case, according to court documents.

Circuit Court Judge David J. Sims and Brooke County Assistant Prosecutor David F. Cross have been assigned to the case, Galloway said.

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)