Possible deal in ex-mayor’s case

NEW CUMBERLAND – The City of Weirton has agreed to drop embezzlement charges against former Mayor Mark Harris in return for a payment of more than $16,000, court documents say.

Harris has written the city a check for $16,273.22 in exchange for three felony counts of embezzlement and one count of conspiracy being dismissed with prejudice, meaning the charges can never be refiled, said his lawyer, William Galloway, of Weirton.

“Mr. and Mrs. Harris believe that making a payment to the city of Weirton … is financially advantageous and expedient for them,” Galloway said. “It was their decision to do this.”

Galloway said the Harrises’ decision was not part of a plea agreement or conviction for any other crime.

“The Harrises maintain their innocence of any criminal wrongdoing,” he said, “but they understand that criminal prosecutions have potential pitfalls that can make obtaining an acquittal difficult, time consuming and especially costly.”

Likewise, the city “has expressed a desire to simply retrieve the allegedly embezzled funds” rather than risk the uncertainties of a trial, according to an agreement filed in Hancock County Circuit Court. A trial “could result in the loss to the public of the retrieval” of the funds, the agreement said.

Although the agreement is not official until it is signed by Visiting Judge David J. Sims, the judge is expected to sign the order some time soon, Galloway said.

The agreement has already been signed by the Harrises, Galloway, Special Prosecutor Scott R. Smith and Weirton Solicitor Vincent Gurrera.

Harris, 44, who now lives in South Carolina, was indicted by a Hancock County grand jury in September 2013 on three 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 was named in the indictment as a co-conspirator.

The indictment accused Harris 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 alleged 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.

Harris and his wife pleaded not guilty to the charges.

After obtaining the indictment, Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis recused himself from the case to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Davis’ daughter, Nicole Davis, is Weirton city clerk, a position she has held since Harris was mayor.

Smith, Ohio County prosecutor, was later appointed as special prosecutor in the case.

Gurrera could not be reached for comment.

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