Brooklyn Assemblywoman Indicted on FEMA Fraud

From left to right, attorneys Joel Cohen and Jerry Goldfeder stand outside U.S. District Court in Brooklyn with New York Assemblywoman Pamela Harris after her Tuesday on fraud charges. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, CNS)

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.

New York Assemblywoman Pamela Harris (left) shakes hands with a marathon runner in this photo posted the Legislature’s website.

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.

To ensure that the construction on her Coney Island home got underway, according to the indictment, Harris made further misrepresentations.

In July 2016, Harris allegedly arranged for Build It Back contractors to enter the residence adjacent to her Coney Island home by claiming on paperwork that her husband “was the owner ‘by will’” of the neighboring structure.

Prosecutors say Harris’ husband was not actually this adjacent property’s lawful owner, “‘by will’ or otherwise.”

Harris was being investigated around this time by a federal grand jury for various fraud schemes. Prosecutors say Harris caused two individuals, including Landlord #2, to lie to federal law enforcement agents conducting this investigation.

In addition to the Hurricane Sandy-related frauds, Harris faces charges over an estimated $76,000 that the New York City Council awarded the nonprofit Coney Island Generation Gap, which Harris founded in 2003.

To get CIGG’s operations subsidized by the city, according to the indictment, Harris billed her nonprofit as a mentorship program that connected teens and young adults living in Coney Island to media arts.

From left to right, attorneys Jerry Goldfeder and Joel Cohen leave U.S. District Court in Brooklyn with New York Assemblywoman Pamela Harris after her arraignment Tuesday on fraud charges. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, CNS)

Prosecutors say the city awarded CIGG more than $42,000 in discretionary funds for fiscal year 2015 based in part on fraudulent documentation supplied by Harris.

Though the future assemblywoman claimed to have rented studio space for CIGG at a cost of $22,800, the indictment says there was no rental agreement and Harris forged a landlord’s signature on the paperwork.

Once the city transferred the funds to CIGG’s checking account, taking its balance from $772 to more than $43,000, Harris diverted the amount meant for rent to her personal bank account, according to the indictment.

“In the weeks immediately following her deposit of Check 377 into her personal checking account, Harris used the funds held in the account to make online payments to several retailers, including Victoria’s Secret and Kohl’s, to pay the monthly mortgage payment on the Coney Island Residence, and to purchase airline and cruise tickets for herself and her spouse totaling nearly $10,000,” the indictment states.

Prosecutors say CIGG won another $35,000 in discretionary funding from the city council for fiscal year 2016. Harris again made misrepresentations about rented studio space and again diverted the funds to her personal use, according to the indictment.

The final scheme described in Tuesday’s indictment involves Harris’ filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 2013 after she owed approximately $60,000 on her mortgage for the Coney Island property.

To establish in bankruptcy court that she could cure any arrears, the indictment says Harris inflated her monthly income by falsely representing to the court that she was getting $1,200 in financial assistance every month from the individual identified as Landlord #2.

Meanwhile, according to the indictment, Harris “concealed financial assets from the bankruptcy court to avoid having the assets used to pay her creditors.”

Just six months before she submitted her Nov. 13, 2013, petition for bankruptcy with her husband, according to the indictment, Harris opened a new bank account and deposited $10,000 into it that same day. Prosecutors say Harris did not disclose this account on forms filed with the bankruptcy court that listed her and her husband’s combined cash and funds at $2,645.

In response to media reports on the bankruptcy, Harris penned an open letter about her financial woes, describing a battle with breast cancer in 2006, her mother’s pancreatic cancer and her husband’s 2012 work injury.

Unrelated to Tuesday’s indictment, Brook-Krasny, the former assemblyman whom Harris succeeded in office, faces criminal charges as well. Prosecutors say the lab where the 59-year-old suited up after leaving office helped three pill mills defraud Medicaid to the tune of $6.3 million.

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