Jim Harris, the state treasurer's chief of staff, announced Monday that he will retire early next year, days after he is scheduled to return to federal court for a defamation case brought by a former co-worker.
In a news release from Treasurer Dennis Milligan's office, Harris, 63, cited his health as the reason for his departure. A federal judge declared a mistrial in August after Harris was taken out of the courtroom by paramedics after an apparent medical emergency. The cause of Harris' illness at the time is unknown.
Harris' retirement will be effective Jan. 13, according to a letter he sent Milligan on Monday. A federal jury trial in which Harris and Milligan are co-defendants is scheduled to begin Jan. 9.
Harris and Milligan are being sued by David Singer, who was terminated from his job as Milligan's outreach manager in April 2015. Singer alleges Harris defamed him in emails sent to a co-worker saying Singer had mental problems and mistreated female employees. The lawsuit also accuses Milligan of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing Singer for a real or perceived disability.
In a joint statement released Monday, Milligan and Harris addressed the latter's service to state government. Prior to serving as Milligan's chief of staff starting in January 2015, Harris was a spokesman for Gov. Mike Huckabee and a bioterrorism and agriculture coordinator for the Department of Emergency Management.
"It has been an honor to serve the people of Arkansas and I am grateful for the opportunity Treasurer Milligan afforded me," Harris said in the statement. "However, at this time it is best that I focus on my health. I look forward to seeing the continued success of Treasurer Milligan and his office."
A spokesman for Milligan's office said Harris was not at work Monday. Reached at home Monday afternoon, Harris said he was "trying to avoid stressful situations" and declined to comment further.
Milligan will not hire a new chief of staff, said his spokesman, Grant Wallace. Instead, Wallace said he and Jason Brady, both deputy chiefs of staff, will assume Harris' duties. Harris' salary is $105,050 a year.
Wallace said Harris' departure had nothing to do with the ongoing lawsuit.
Both Harris and Milligan, in his capacity as an official of the state, retained the services of the Mitchell Williams Law Firm in Little Rock for their defense after the attorney general's office recused due to an assistant attorney general being called as a witness.
Byron Freeland, one of two Mitchell Williams attorneys assigned to the case, said Harris is paying for his own defense in Singer's defamation claims, while the state is paying for its defense against disability discrimination claims.
Singer is seeking punitive damages against Harris. No monetary damages can be sought in Singer's disability claim, but a judge can order the state to rehire him or to clear his employment record.
The first jury trial involving Harris and Milligan abruptly ended after four days in August when Freeland reported to U.S. District Court Judge Brian Miller that Harris was complaining of chest pains, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette previously reported.
That prompted Singer's attorney, Luther Sutter, to request a mistrial. Sutter could not be reached at his office Monday.
When asked if Singer's legal team would continue to contend that Harris' medical emergency was illegitimate, another attorney at the firm, Lucien Gillham, referred to a motion filed in August seeking to have Miller recuse for not allowing Sutter to explain his doubts.
"That's still our contention," Gillham said.
Last week, attorneys for Milligan and Harris asked that the defamation claim against Harris be remanded to Pulaski County Circuit Court, where Singer has another lawsuit pending in which he claims he was illegally fired for being a whistleblower.
The attorneys argued that by leaving only the disability discrimination claim to be decided by a federal jury, the Jan. 9 trial will be shorter and "will make it less likely that ... Harris will suffer a health-related incident such as the one in August."
"Defendants do not wish to take the risk that, once again, the stress of trial will adversely affect the health" of Harris, the attorneys said, adding they want to ensure that the discrimination claim "can be tried to judgment without the distraction" of Harris' health issues.
The attorneys said they are seeking the remand because Singer "has indicated in filings post-mistrial that he believes the circumstances surrounding whether or not Harris did or did not have a health condition are relevant."
A federal judge must hear claims filed under federal law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act in this case, but has discretion to hear a related state-law claim.
Metro on 12/13/2016