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Former L.A. neighborhood council leader indicted

February 1, 2010 |  2:38 pm

Concerned for the safety of several witnesses, prosecutors with the Los Angeles County district attorney's  office obtained a grand jury indictment last month of a former Los Angeles neighborhood council president who had been charged in October with misappropriating city funds.

James Harris, who headed the Empowerment Congress Southwest Area Neighborhood Development Council in South Los Angeles, is the fifth neighborhood council leader to face criminal charges for misuse of taxpayer funds. The money had been allotted to the groups, which received $50,000 annually until this year when their budgets were reduced to $45,000. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Harris in mid-February, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said the indictment would allow the case to go to trial more quickly.

At his arraignment Friday, Harris pleaded not guilty to four counts in the superseding indictment, which accused him of misappropriating $152,000, embezzlement and falsifying receipts and neighborhood council minutes (documentation required to justify a neighborhood council’s expenses.)

Huntsman said that because of Harris’ prior federal conviction for bank robbery in 1985 and two state felony robbery convictions in 1986, he could face up to 14 years in prison under California's three-strikes law. Harris’ lawyer could not immediately be reached.

According to Huntsman, Harris had contacted several witnesses in recent months. In one instance, Huntsman said Harris offered to send a car to pick up a witness and drive her to an undisclosed location to meet him.

“I think that would make anyone nervous if somebody's talking to them who has strike priors and alleged gang ties,” Huntsman said, adding there are a number of witnesses “who feel their safety is in danger.”

Harris' bail was reduced from more than $1 million to $100,000 after supporters at a previous court hearing praised his work in the community. He was required to post bond today.

He was removed as president of the neighborhood council by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment last year. That department, which oversees the neighborhood council funding program, could face deep budget cuts as the city tries to close a $208-million budget gap this fiscal year.

The city’s top budget analyst, Miguel Santana, has asked City Council members to consider a 50% reduction in the neighborhood councils' budgets in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. In his three-year budget plan, Santana also called for eliminating the bankcard system that allows certain neighborhood council leaders — who are not subject to background checks — to make cash withdrawals and credit-card purchases.

-- Maeve Reston at Los Angeles City Hall

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