0

Chamber shocked by Morris arrest

DULUTH - He enticed Hewlett-Packard to Gwinnett, the first company to take advantage of a new tax incentive program, and he lead the effort to envision the county's future.

But now Scott Morris, the leader of Gwinnett's economic development efforts, is facing more than 100 years in prison, charged with 20 felony counts of possession of child pornography.

Morris was arrested Wednesday at the Chamber of Commerce building, where he recently was promoted to a vice president, leaving officials stunned.

"This whole thing came as an absolute shock to us," Chamber President Jim Maran said. "He was performing well. He was well-liked in the community. This thing kind of blindsided us."

Maran said Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials took Morris's computer, and over the summer, confiscated equipment from the Newton County Chamber of Commerce, where Morris served as president from May 2004 to September 2005.

Nothing was found on the Georgia computers, but Morris was indicted in Halifax County, Va., where he worked as the county's Industrial Development Authority director in 2004.

According to reports, questionable content involving girls under the age of 18 was found on a laptop computer by the current authority director, which lead to the investigation into Morris.

"We're really lost as to why that happened, whether there was politics behind it," Maran said "There's been no indication inside this facility from anybody."

As with any chamber employee, Morris went through a thorough background check and references were checked, Maran said. "His slate was 100 percent clean."

On Friday, Maran said Morris was no longer a Chamber employee, although he did not term the situation a firing or a resignation. Severance has not been discussed, he said.

"This is a very complicated situation," Maran said. "We agreed he wouldn't work here. It's just better for everyone."

Since last year, when the county began allowing tax breaks to draw businesses in the community, Morris has been the go-to person for any business interested in locating in the area.

Last May, he helped snag Hewlett-Packard as the first to take advantage of the incentives - bringing a $240 million investment and 140 high-paying jobs to the area.

Then in October, he led a group of 50 high-profile business and civic leaders, including commission Chairman Charles Bannister, school board members, Maran and others, on a trip to Fairfax County, Va.

The county is a suburb of Washington, D.C., and said to be similar to Gwinnett in terms of growth and demographics.

Morris was also in charge of Partnership Gwinnett, a Chamber-led initiative to envision Gwinnett's economic future and livelihood, and he expressed interest in a proposal to bring minor-league baseball to the suburbs, a job he accomplished while working in Rome, Ga.

Earlier this month, the Partnership Gwinnett plan was presented, and officials said the Chamber of Commerce may need to hire as many as 15 new people to put the plan in action.

Maran said Morris' arrest should not slow down the chamber in its pursuits to boost the local economy.

"It's interesting in Gwinnett County. When you need help, there's a lot of it here," he said. "It's a negative situation, but to see how everyone has jumped in is very impressive."

The scandal, he said, shouldn't hurt the county's reputation either.

"This chamber has a good reputation for doing the right thing," he said. "It's bigger than one person."

Alfie Meek, the economic development director for Gwinnett County government who worked closely with Morris on the incentives project, did not comment on the arrest.

But he said the situation won't impact any current projects or negotiations.

"We will continue to partner with the Chamber in an effort to support and enhance the economic base of the county," Meek wrote in an e-mail. "We worked closely with the chamber to attract HP before their current economic development staff was in place; we have worked closely with the chamber on several projects during the past year; and we will work closely with the chamber going forward."