MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (WATE) — Two employees of a utility company serving Hamblen and Jefferson counties have been indicted following a state investigation into misuse of district funds and property.
A Hamblen County Grand Jury indicted Witt District Utility manager Benjamin Harris and his brother Joseph Harris, the district water treatment operator, on Monday, May 15.
Benjamin Harris faces one count of theft of property over $10,000, one count of theft of property of $1,000 or less, and three counts of official misconduct. Joseph Harris was also indicted on one count of official misconduct.
The indictment comes following an investigation by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Investigators found that Benjamin Harris received overtime payments of at least $67,392 from January to August 2022. No documentation was found to support this work according to the investigation. The Comptroller’s Office claims that during this period, he was paid for an average of 18.65 total hours worked each day during a five-day work week.
According to the Comptroller’s Office, Benjamin Harris used at least $12,000 in district money to pay a contractor to install a new roof and gutters on his personal residence. The investigation also alleged that he bought concrete with district funds and used part of it to build a small porch on a board commissioner’s farm.
Furthermore, the Comptroller’s Office claims Benjamin and Joseph Harris “used the district’s bobcat to perform work at a private business.”
The investigation also alleges that the district did not solicit competitive bids for multiple purchases and projects. Investigators also questioned the use of $5,243 in district funds to buy items such as food, fuel, and supplies that were not supported with itemized receipts or documentation.
The investigation also found that Benjamin Harris would take a district-owned truck to a sports bar in Knoxville after “normal working hours.” According to the Comptroller’s Office, he admitted to drinking alcoholic beverages during these visits.
The investigation searched through records from the period July 1, 2021, to March 15, 2023.
“Our investigators have noted numerous deficiencies within this utility district that require corrective action,” said Comptroller Mumpower. “The board failed in its fiduciary responsibility to ensure the best use of funds for projects and failed to provide adequate oversight of manager decisions, operations, and expenses.”
Witt Utility District provides water service to approximately 2,200 customers. The district is governed by a three-person board of commissioners, who are appointed to four-year terms by the Hamblen and Jefferson County Mayors.