BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - A Brooklyn assemblywoman was arraigned Tuesday on charges that she lined her pockets with federal dollars meant for disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy.
A Democrat who just won re-election in 2016, Pamela Harris represents District 46 in the state Assembly, covering the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Coney Island and Dyker Heights.
The 11-count federal indictment filed against her this morning in Brooklyn describes a long-running scheme that predates her time in office.
It notes that Harris and her husband lived in Coney Island in fall 2012 when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast. Beginning that December, according to the indictment, Harris applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for housing assistance, claiming that the storm had rendered her three-story residence on Neptune Avenue uninhabitable.
Though Harris told FEMA that the damage forced her to take up temporary residence on Staten Island, prosecutors say this was not true. The Staten Island landlord Harris claimed to have been paying in cash every month — between $1,550 and $2,500 a go — is identified in the charging papers as Landlord #2.
“In furtherance of the scheme to defraud, Harris created fake lease agreements and receipts, forged Landlord #2's signature on the documents, and submitted those documents, along with the temporary housing applications, to FEMA, falsely representing that she had entered into a rental lease agreement with Landlord #2 and paid rent to live at the Staten Island residence in the months following Hurricane Sandy,” the indictment states.
All told, the government says, FEMA disbursed approximately $24,800 to Harris in temporary housing assistance between 2012 and January 2014.
Represented by the firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, Harris pleaded not guilty at her arraignment Tuesday to all charges.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ramon Reyes Jr. set the assemblywoman’s bail at $150,000, which was quickly posted by a woman described to Reyes as a “longstanding friend.”
Facing travel restrictions and directions to surrender her passport, Harris was driven away from the courthouse in a car with a license plate that said “MYBIGDAD.” She wore a white shirt and black blazer, with her hair in a bun.
Attorneys for Harris issued a statement outside the courthouse, calling Harris “an invaluable community organizer and a well-regarded legislator.”
“Importantly, none of the allegations contained in the indictment relate to Ms. Harris’s conduct in office,” attorneys Joel Cohen and Jerry Goldfeder said.
Neither of the lawyers nor Harris commented on whether she would step down from the New York Assembly. There will be a conference Jan. 16 with U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein.
The indictment says Harris made a different claim to defraud the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development just a day before she told FEMA about her Staten Island rental.
After Hurricane Sandy, the HUD administered about $16 billion in disaster relief, and a portion of those funds went to New York City’s Build It Back Program.
Harris claimed in a 2013 application to the NYC Build It Back program that she was living at the Coney Island residence.
Prosecutors say Harris submitted fake receipts and forged documentation in 2016 when the NYC Build It Back Program informed her that it had approved funding to elevate her Coney Island residence and that she could be eligible for temporary-relocation assistance while such repairs were underway.