Virginia Beach city official who embezzled $80K plans to pay much of it back with his unused leave time

The former Virginia Beach economic development director who admitted to using city funds to pay for extravagant trips, meals and other personal expenditures totaling almost $80,000 will be able to pay a significant portion of it back with his unused leave time, according to city officials.

Warren Harris pleaded guilty last year to four of the 14 counts of felony embezzlement he faced. At his sentencing Monday, Circuit Judge Steven Frucci ordered Harris to reimburse the city for the $79,479 in illegal charges prosecutors determined he made. The improper spending included a trip to Spain to attend the Running of the Bulls festival and a trip to Dubai.

As for the money he owes, Harris will be able to pay back $32,572 — or about 40% of the total — with the unused leave time accumulated before he abruptly resigned in 2018 amid an investigation of his credit card spending.

Typically when an employee resigns, they receive compensation for unused leave time shortly after their departure, said City Auditor Lyndon Remias, the official who notified law enforcement about Harris’ crimes. Because Harris was under investigation, his unused leave pay was frozen until the case was resolved, Remias said. Days that prosecutors determined Harris wasn’t actually working were subtracted from the total, he said.

Despite his criminal conviction, Harris is entitled to the money and the city can’t hold it back, Remias said. But Harris agreed to put it toward his restitution and the money will be sent straight to the court.

Harris’ attorney, Jeffrey Swartz said Thursday he was surprised the amount wasn’t higher. He thought it would be enough to cover all his client owed.

In addition to the restitution order, Frucci also gave Harris a suspended two-year sentence, which means he won’t have to spend any time in jail unless he gets in trouble again and is ordered to serve some or all of that time. Harris bonded out as soon as he was charged in November 2019, so he’s yet to spend any time behind bars.

As for Harris’ retirement pay — a state law passed in 2011 prevents state employees from collecting retirement benefits if they’re convicted of a felony that involves misconduct on the job.

But it’s up to the person’s employer to notify Virginia Retirement System and then follow the process that’s in place. Employees have the right to appeal.

Remias said the city was waiting until after Harris was sentenced to begin taking steps to have his retirement forfeited. Members of his office, the Office of the City Attorney, and the Human Resources Department plan to meet next week to discuss it, he said.

It’s not known if Harris has collected on his retirement. Swartz said he didn’t know if his client had received any funds from it and a spokeswoman for the Virginia Retirement System said the organization can’t disclose that information. Harris couldn’t be reached for comment.

When qualified employees leave jobs, they can choose to immediately collect the amount they have contributed to their retirement, choose to defer payments, or begin collecting them said Jeanne Chenault, public relations director for VRS.

Harris served as Virginia Beach’s economic development director from 2007-18, earning about $170,000 a year. Before that, he held the same position with the City of Chesapeake for six years.

Virginia Beach’s Economic Development Department is responsible for expanding and diversifying the tax base, bringing new companies and higher-paying jobs to the city and building trade relationships with foreign countries. The department had offices in Germany, Spain and the Philippines when Harris was in charge but closed the one in the Philippines in 2019.

Harris was responsible for fewer than 20 employees and managed a nearly $6 million budget. As head of the department, he was able to approve his own expense reports. The city changed that policy after his resignation.

Jane Harper, 757-222-5097,