Michelle Harris entered a plea in Fulton County Superior Court this morning to one count of racketeering, a felony under Georgia law. Attorney General Baker indicted Harris in March 2008 after state auditors discovered Harris had used her state-issued purchasing card (P-card) to make numerous personal purchases. She entered a non-negotiated, or blind, plea, following her decision last Monday, March 9, to withdraw her negotiated plea halfway through the plea hearing in front of Judge John J. Goger. Judge Goger sentenced her this morning to 10 years in prison, to be followed by 10 years of probation. Additionally, the court ordered today that restitution would be determined at a later date. The indictment presented to the grand jury by the Attorney General alleges that Ms. Harris, over a period of four years, stole over $170,000 from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech).
Michelle Harris was employed as a program coordinator by Georgia Tech’s College of Management. Ms. Harris was issued a purchasing card for use in her official duties. From June 2003 until May 2007, however, Ms. Harris illegally used her purchasing card to make personal purchases. The personal charges on Ms. Harris’s state issued credit card included car insurance, cellular telephone bills, personal tuition at Georgia State University, college tuition for a member of her family, car repair, tens of thousands of dollars in Sam’s Club gift cards, a diamond ring, and over $4,000 in catering for a wedding reception.
“Ten years in prison is a clear message that violating the public trust will not be tolerated in Georgia,” said Attorney General Thurbert Baker. Baker went on to say that, “the P-card program, while set up to allow state employees to make state purchases more efficiently, became a slush fund for some employees who found a way to criminally circumvent the safeguards in place to prevent misuse. This prosecution, as well as the other P-card prosecutions brought by my office, signals that the days of public monies paying for corrupt employees spending sprees are over.”
Ms. Harris had access to multiple accounts funded with federal and private grants through her position at Georgia Tech, including grants from the National Science Foundation. Georgia Tech has reimbursed those grant accounts for the theft, and all restitution paid by Ms. Harris will go directly to Georgia Tech.
The fraud was initially discovered during a State Department of Audits review of purchasing card activity, and the case was investigated through the joint efforts of the Audit Department, the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Internal Auditing at Georgia Tech. Assistant Attorney General Laura Pfister prosecuted the case for the Office of the Attorney General.