New York State Assemblywoman Pamela Harris of Brooklyn is facing fraud and obstruction-of-justice charges Tuesday, after the unsealing of an 11-count indictment against her, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.
Prosecutors allege the state legislator, who represents parts of southern Brooklyn, was involved in schemes that range from defrauding the New York City Council through a nonprofit she controlled to providing fake documents to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to illegally securing tens of thousands in funds after Hurricane Sandy.
“As alleged in the indictment, the defendant defrauded government agencies out of tens of thousands of dollars in public funds and tried to fraudulently obtain even more,” recently installed U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement.
According to prosecutors, as investigators began to circle, Harris allegedly attempted to obstruct justice.
“When she learned that law enforcement was investigating her various fraud schemes, she pressured witnesses to lie to the FBI and cover them up,” Donoghue said.
Harris’ alleged schemes were as creative as they were multitudinous, according to prosecutors.
Between August 2014 and July 2015, Harris used her position as the executive director of the nonprofit Coney Island Generation Gap to secure $23,000 in funds from the city council to rent studio space. She allegedly submitted forged leasing documents to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development, which is responsible for administering and disturbing the council’s discretionary funding. Harris then diverted the funds into her personal account and used the money for personal expenses, according to prosecutors.
The scheming continued, prosecutors said, after she was elected to the assembly in 2015. Again, Harris requested funding from the council for the nonprofit for rental space between July 2015 and January 2017. Another $11,400 was allegedly diverted from the group’s accounts directly into Harris’ personal one.
Harris also allegedly defrauded both federal and local rebuilding programs attempting to help people after Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal communities in Brooklyn and elsewhere in 2012.
Prosecutors claim Harris defrauded FEMA out of nearly $25,000 by falsely claiming she’d been forced out of her Coney Island residence after the storm. To buttress claims she’d been forced to take up temporary residence, Harris allegedly submitted fake lease agreements and falsified rent payment receipts to federal authorities, despite continuing to live in her home.
Likewise, Harris is alleged to have submitted the same receipts she submitted to FEMA to the city’s Build It Back program in an attempt to obtain additional financial assistance. Prosecutors say she also made additional false claims in an attempt to persuade Build It Back to pay for construction on her home.
Additionally, Harris allegedly made false claims in 2013 during bankruptcy proceedings related to the post-Sandy schemes, in an attempt to obscure the amount of money she was paying and receiving.
When Harris became aware of a grand jury investigation into the alleged activity, prosecutors say she told witnesses to lie to FBI agents conducting the investigation.
In a statement released by her attorneys, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan of counsel Joel Cohen and special counsel Jerry Goldfeder said they were “disappointed” at the indictment against a client they called an “invaluable community organizer and well-regarded legislator.”
“She has pleaded not guilty, and we look forward to her day in court and an opportunity there to present the full facts,” the pair said, adding that none of the allegations against Harris related to her conduct in office.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who leads the Democratic-dominated Assembly, told reporters in Albany that he was surprised by Harris’ indictment.
“When word got out, it was the first I heard of it. I’m saddened to hear, based on the allegations. This is one where you’ve got to let the wheels of justice turn and that’s all I know. I haven’t read the indictment. I just read the charges,” the Bronx Democrat said.
Despite allegations of improper use of discretionary funds against Harris, Heastie said it’s not a reason to get rid of such funding.
“I don’t think this means if somebody does something wrong you shouldn’t provide support in communities. I think we should be very careful in trying to group all of those things together,” Heastie told reporters. “There are certain things you can and cannot do in this life. I’m not sure if another ethics reform makes this better or worse. There’s just things you’re not supposed to do in this life.”
Heastie was elevated to speaker after the former speaker, Sheldon Silver, was arrested on unrelated fraud charges. Silver was eventually convicted, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned that conviction due to jury instructions in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in McDonnell v. United States.
Harris’ attorney Cohen served as co-counsel to Silver during his criminal trial.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Republicans who control the State Senate were surprised to learn that a member of the Legislature had been indicted moments earlier.
“I was not aware of what you are discussing. I’m actually very disheartened to hear that,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan when asked about the indictment. “But I also think, to some extent, it is an indication that our laws are actually working. We have made significant changes. We have more disclosure, more transparency, more limitations on what people can do in the legislature.”
Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, staunchly defended having lawmakers earmark public dollars to pet projects, noting that there are several levels of oversight in state government.
“There are layers and layers of protection right now. So do i think my colleagues have great savvy of what should go on in their district? You better believe I do,” Flanagan said.
Harris could not be reached for comment.