Franklin County Tax Collector James Harris, Jr. resigned Monday from the office he has held for nearly a quarter-century, after he was arrested Friday evening on a charge of having sex with a minor.
Harris’ decision to step down came the same day Governor Rick Scott suspended him without pay from office, for having been charged with a felony. Harris' resignation means Scott must now make an appointment to the office, with that person serving as tax collector until voters make their choice known at the Nov. 2018 general election.
According to a news release from the sheriff's office issued Saturday afternoon, Harris was arrested Friday evening for a second-degree felony, of having sexual activity with a minor age 16 or 17. A second-degree felony is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, 15 years probation, a $10,000 fine, and lengthy status as a sexual offender.
Harris was released from jail Saturday morning after posting a $5,000 bond.
Sheriff A.J. Smith oversaw the investigation, which began after the department received a complaint that an unknown adult male had been at an Eastpoint residence with a 17-year-old boy. Acccording to a probable cause affidavit prepared by Detective Brett Johnson, Lt. Brad Segree and several deputies responded Friday evening to the call.
The boyfriend of the teen’s mother told them that when he returned home from work, he noticed an unfamiliar black car in the driveway but thought it might have belonged to one of the teen’s friends.
The man said that after unloading his tools from the truck, he tried to enter the back door, which he normally leaves unlocked, and found it locked. The man then went to the front door, where he “noticed an older man walking towards the black car and entering it from the driver’s side.”
Asked why he was there, the man had said he was at the wrong residence, that he was supposed to be at the house next door.
The mother’s boyfriend took down the vehicle's license number and gave it to the boy’s mother, who reported it to the sheriff’s office, which was able to track the license number as belonging to Harris, 56, of Apalachicola.
The detective interviewed the teen, who said he met the man on Facebook but did not know his name. The boy said that in a Facebook message, the person iidentified himself as "Drake Smith," from a profile that did not have a photograph, and which said the man was 22 years old.
The boy told law enforcement that after the man arrived, nothing had happened because he was older than what his profile had indicated. The detective said the boy identified a photo of Harris as being the man who had been at the residence. The boy also said he had claimed to be 17 years old in a message that he had sent the older man.
Together with Detective Gabriel Lockley, Johnson drove to Harris’ residence to speak with him. Harris, a married father of two, told them he had been in the Eastpoint neighborhood looking for a grill.
“I then told James Harris that I already knew what took place and need him to be honest with me,” Johnson wrote in the affidavit, which said Harris admitted having sexual contact with the teen, but that the teen claimed to be 18.
After advising Harris the teen was only 17, detectives placed him under arrest. The affidavit said Harris waived his constitutional rights while en route to the sheriff’s office.
Harris said the two had met on a social networking app, other than Facebook, and that the teen had indicated he was 18.
In a second interview with the boy, Johnson wrote that the boy confirmed sexual contact had taken place on that visit, that it was more extensive than what Harris admitted to, and that it had happened one other time about a month previous.
The detective said that in a subsequent interview later that evening, Harris denied the additional allegations.
Smith said the investigation is ongoing, and that an inquiry is being made of Harris' and the boy's electronic devices.
Harris, a Democrat, was unopposed in last fall's election in his bid for a seventh term. Among current officeholders, he is the county’s longest serving constitutional officer, with 24 years in office. He has not drawn an opponent in several years, either Democrat or Republican.