By Carlotta Grandstaff
The jury in the Harris Himes trial split the verdict down the middle, with guilty verdicts on the three counts of securities fraud and three acquittals on the remaining three counts of theft and conspiracy.
Himes represented himself in the five-day trial. The six felony counts were filed by the office of state auditor Monica Lindeen, and prosecuted by two attorneys from her office, Jesse Laslovich and Brett O’Neil, two low-key, no-drama government lawyers who argued the case, presented the evidence, asked short, pointed questions of the witnesses and withdrew, drawing no attention to themselves.
Himes, by contrast, put on a partially successful, but emotional defense that was all over the map. He accused his victim and former parishioner Geoffrey Serata of attempting to defraud the Bureau of Veterans Affairs by hiding $150,000 of a $425,000 inheritance in Himes’s business account. He accused Lindeen and her office of conducting a “witch hunt” against him. And, in one of his written motions, he charged an investigator from the auditor’s office with an anti-Christian bias, though he never brought that up at trial. He also argued that his company, Duratherm Building Systems, was on the verge of profitability, and would have been able to reimburse Serata his $150,000 investment given enough time.
In his closing argument Laslovich told the jury, “This is a pretty straightforward story. This is a story of trust. This is a story of betrayal and deceit – a tangled web of deceit.” Serata is somewhat of a “lost soul” who squeaks by on odd jobs and disability payments of less than $800 a month. He finds the Lord and meets Himes. He looks up to Himes and consults him on the big issues of his life – like where to invest his inheritance.
In his closing argument, an emotional, rambling, unfocussed monologue, Himes placed the blame on Serata and Lindeen, and suggested that he – Himes – was victimized by Serata. Serata was a “non-credible witness,” a scammer who tried to defraud the V.A. The prosecution “made it look like I set a poor, crippled guy up when the truth is that poor, crippled guy set the V.A. up. He defrauded the V.A., he defrauded me and now he’s trying to defraud you.”
Lindeen’s office coordinated a “witch hunt” – a phrase Himes used repeatedly in his closing – because she and her staff know that Himes is “pro-traditional marriage” and she and/or her staff are gay rights activists. “It is a witch hunt. It was a prophetic thing. That’s true.”
Serata invested $150,000 in Duratherm Building Systems, a Mexican company owned by Himes and James Bryant, Himes’s co-pastor and co-defendant. Serata testified that when he visited the factory in Mexico he found nothing but an empty building. The $150,000 he invested in a glue machine vanished, as bank records indicated. The glue machine turned out to be “old, worn, beat up, rusted,” in Laslovich’s words.
Bryant testified that Duratherm was, in fact, on the verge of profitability when the state filed criminal charges. The resultant press accounts plunged the company into near insolvency.
In summary, it could be said that the relationship between spiritual advisor and seeker broke down irretrievably when the covenant with God they thought they were making expanded to include a profit sharing element.
Sentencing will take place when a pre-sentence investigation is complete, which could take several months.