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South L.A. activist accused of misusing public funds

October 8, 2009 |  5:25 pm

Police today arrested James Harris, a South Los Angeles community activist and neighborhood council chairman, on suspicion of misappropriating $85,000 in city funds allocated to his neighborhood group.

Harris, 46, the longtime chairman of the Empowerment Congress Southwest Area Neighborhood Development Council, is the fifth neighborhood council member charged with the felony crime of misusing taxpayer money over the last two years.

Known for his anti-gang efforts and work with ex-offenders, Harris surrendered to police and bail was set at just over $1 million.

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said Harris has two prior felony convictions for robbery in Los Angeles. The city agency that works with neighborhood councils does not require members to undergo financial background checks.

Harris’ attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

Prosecutors allege that while acting as chairman and treasurer of his neighborhood council between April 2007 and January 2009, Harris made a series of cash withdrawals, money orders and credit card purchases that were not authorized. The city’s 89 neighborhood councils, which are allocated $50,000 a year through city checks and a credit card issued to the treasurer, must approve every transaction by their treasurer.

Huntsman said Harris spent money on travel and hired his daughter to handle administrative work for the group. In a memo to police last year, city officials expressed concern about what they termed “excessive payments” for two accounting personnel hired through an employment agency. Those payments totaled more than $53,000 between June 2006 and this January, according to the group's accounting reports.

“The key thing here is that almost none of this stuff seems to be approved,” Huntsman said, adding that Harris allegedly submitted fraudulent receipts for work that did appear to have been done. “Any dime he spends must be with board approval,”  Huntsman said,

Harris has been working at the Community Coalition, a group founded by California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and focused on improving the quality of life in South Los Angeles. As the head of the group’s prevention network, Harris coordinated the efforts of substance abuse programs in the area.

—Maeve Reston at L.A. City Hall