BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Having taken nearly two weeks to marinate on the fraud committed by former New York Assemblywoman Pamela Harris, a federal judge settled on a prison term Wednesday well short of the sentence sought by prosecutors.
Ordering a six-month sentence at a 20-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein explained that he did not want the defendant to spend too much time in lockup.
“Harris, in the court’s opinion, has a better chance of rehabilitation on the outside than on the inside of a prison,” Weinstein said in court this afternoon, reading out loud from what he said was a 28-page opinion.
Back in June, the 58-year-old Harris pleaded guilty to four counts of wire fraud, disaster-relief fraud and witness tampering. She’d been arraigned in January on an 11-count federal indictment that described a long-running and multipronged fraud scheme, which netted her tens of thousands of dollars, including funds defrauded from the New York City Council and from Federal Emergency Management System in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. When the government began probing her finances, she asked people she knew to lie to the FBI.
Judge Weinstein had initially been slated to sentence Harris on Oct. 12, but noted in a 90-minute hearing that day that hers was a “unique, difficult case,” and that he wanted “to reflect on it further.”
Following up in an Oct. 16 order, Weinstein said he wanted to “consult with a number of the judges in the federal district court for the Eastern District of New York before sentencing.”
In addition to prison time, Weinstein ordered that Harris face three years of supervised release, 400 hours of community service, and pay restitution of $45,600 to the City of New York and $24,800 to FEMA. Prosecutors had asked in an Oct. 4 sentencing memo for Harris to be jailed for up to 41 months.
Harris, whose husband sat at the defense table and walked her out, declined to comment after the sentence was finally handed down. Her attorney Joel Cohen of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan was prepared, however, with a typed and copied statement, which he handed out to reporters.
“While any sentence of incarceration is painful,” the statement says, “we are grateful for Judge Weinstein’s thoughtful and fair consideration of all the relevant factors in this case. Ms. Harris looks forward to putting all this behind her and continuing to help people as she has always done.”
Weinstein offered positive statements about the defendant as well. He detailed the many challenges Harris has faced in her life, including an abusive childhood with a single mother, the unexpected death of her only child, homelessness, drug addiction, and breast cancer.
“Harris has exhibited a remarkable capacity to rehabilitate herself,” he said.
Later he said, “She is sincerely remorseful for her crimes.”
As for her crimes, however, the judge observed that Harris engaged in “a pattern of deliberate and calculated criminal behavior from 2012 to 2017,” and “contributed to the erosion of the public’s faith in government.”
Harris was first elected to the New York Assembly in 2015. Though some of the fraud occurred during her time in office, she was not accused of using her position of power in the scam, and resigned from the Assembly in April. She was the first black woman to represent a majority white district in New York City.
Harris represented District 46 in the state Assembly, which covers the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Coney Island and Dyker Heights.
Democrat Mathylde Frontus will face Republican Steve Saperstein for the empty seat in District 46 in November’s general election.
“With today’s sentence, Pamela Harris has been held responsible for stealing tens of thousands of dollars in government funds set aside for underserved children and funds allocated for victims of Hurricane Sandy, as well as lying and presenting fraudulent documents to the FBI when her crimes were uncovered,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue in a statement Wednesday. “She committed these fraudulent acts both before and while she served as a New York State assemblywoman in Brooklyn, betraying the trust placed in her by her constituents.”
Cohen asked Weinstein if Harris could be incarcerated in California, a request the judge immediately denied, saying people should be imprisoned near their community. Cohen would not comment afterward on why he’d asked for a West Coast prison sentence, despite the fact that Harris was born and raised in Coney Island and has a husband and other family nearby.
At one point in her life Harris worked as a prison guard on Rikers Island and was attacked by an adolescent inmate, and Weinstein acknowledged Wednesday the extra risk to her now as an inmate who was formerly a guard.
She is scheduled to self-surrender on Dec. 4.