Circuit clerk sentenced to six years in jail

Published 12:38 am Thursday, October 18, 2007

NATCHEZ — A federal judge sentenced Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Burnell Harris Wednesday morning to six years in jail and three years of probation.

Harris was convicted in July of embezzlement, tax evasion and money laundering.

He must also pay $447,086.07 in restitution to the state auditor’s office.

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Judge David Bramlette granted the request that Harris be allowed to report to serve his sentence in January.

Prosecutors asked the court to consider what they said was obstruction of justice when considering Harris’ sentence.

Harris, prosecutors said, lied on the stand and did not produce financial documents when asked.

Defense attorney Bruce Lewis said the documents in question were not among those requested by investigators.

Bramlette allowed the obstruction to play into the sentence.

“What we’re dealing with here is an educated man,” Bramlette said, referring to Harris’ master’s degree and his nearly-completed doctorate.

Harris was smart enough to recognize he deposited checks he should not have into his personal account, Bramlette said.

Prosecutors also asked Bramlette to take into consideration what they said was a breach of trust Harris committed as circuit clerk, which the judge did.

With supporters filling the benches, several people spoke on his behalf, lauding his positive acts in the community and asking the judge to be lenient.

The Rev. Isaac Tenner, an area minister and one of those who spoke, said he knew Harris his whole life.

“I grew up with him,” Tenner said. “All I am saying is he’s a good man. All of us make mistakes. This is the first time I’ve known him to make a mistake. He always helped anybody he could. I don’t think this mistake should be the end of his career. Please give him an opportunity to correct those mistakes.”

Then, Harris spoke calmly on his own behalf, saying he always tried to be the best person and clerk he could be. He served as a mentor to people who came through the court system, he said.

“Now, it’s embarrassing for me to stand here, and after what the community has been through, to stand here before you in the same situation,” Harris said. “I don’t want to take any money that’s not due to me. I’m very remorseful for the situation I put myself in, my family in and the citizens of Jefferson County in.”

Bramlette sentenced Harris to serve 72 months for five counts and 60 months for the remaining four, to be served concurrently, or at the same time.

The judge also sentenced him to three years probation.

Because Harris was not in a position to pay any fines, Bramlette did not level any fines against him, he said.

Harris will report to serve his sentence in January, giving him time to spend with his family, among other things.

Tenner said he was satisfied with Harris’ sentence.

“Based upon the evidence, I think it was fair,” Tenner said. “The judge did a fair job from what I can see. The sentence could have been worse. We appreciate him for that.”

The maximum sentence Harris could have received under law would have been 70 years in prison and a fine of $1.75 million, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Federal judges consult sentencing guidelines before meting out punishments.

Harris would not comment on the sentencing.

Defense attorney Lewis said he had not talked with his client about whether or not they would appeal the case.

Prosecutor Richard Starret said he thought it was a fair and just sentence.

The state auditor’s office issued a statement Wednesday night saying they would ask for $850,966.42 in restitution, nearly twice the amount in the judge’s sentence.

The state auditor’s investigation went two years beyond the federal investigation, a spokesman for the auditor’s office said Wednesday.

The amount, which includes the judge’s ordered restitution, includes money Harris embezzled from February 1999 to August 2005, according to the statement. It also includes interest on those funds and the cost of the auditor’s investigation.

Harris lost his bid for reelection in August.