South L.A. activist held in neighborhood funds case

Police on Thursday arrested James Tyrell Harris, a South Los Angeles community activist and previously convicted felon, on suspicion of misappropriating $85,000 in city funds while serving as chairman of his neighborhood council.

Harris is the fifth neighborhood council member in the city to be charged with a felony for allegedly misusing money over the last two years. The cases have raised questions about how closely officials monitor the 89 volunteer neighborhood councils, each of which is annually given money for supplies and community projects. The amount has historically been $50,000, reduced this year to $45,000.

The funds can be drawn down through a credit card issued to each treasurer or through city checks. The agency that works with neighborhood councils does not require their members to undergo financial background checks.

Harris, who is known for his anti-gang efforts and work with ex-offenders in South Los Angeles, surrendered to police. His bail was set at $1,085,000.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said Harris, 46, has two previous felony convictions for robbery in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. With two previous strikes, the maximum sentence if he is convicted could be 25 years to life, but prosecutors are expected to seek substantially less prison time because the alleged crime was not related to violence and the previous strikes are more than two decades old.


Harris’ attorney could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutors allege that while acting as chairman and treasurer of the Empowerment Congress Southwest Area Neighborhood Development Council, Harris bought money orders and made a series of cash withdrawals and credit card purchases that were not authorized.

Huntsman said Harris spent some of the group’s money on travel and to hire his daughter to handle administrative work for the council. City officials expressed concern in a memo to police last year about what they termed “questionable time sheets and excessive payments” for two accounting workers hired through an employment agency. Those payments totaled more than $53,000 between June 2006 and January of this year, accounting reports show.

“The key thing here is that almost none of this stuff seems to be approved,” said Huntsman, who said Harris submitted fraudulent receipts for work that did not appear to have been done. “Any dime he spends must be with board approval.”

Harris has been working at the Community Coalition, a group focused on improving the quality of life in South L.A.