BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - In a rare but not unprecedented move, the federal judge weighing the fate of former New York Assemblywoman Pamela Harris ended a 90-minute sentencing hearing Friday without resolution.
“I’m not prepared to make the critical decision in this case at the moment,” Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who is 97, told a nearly full courtroom midday Friday.
After 58-year-old Harris pleaded guilty in June to four counts of wire fraud, disaster-relief fraud and witness tampering, the decision plaguing Weinstein is whether to order incarceration, as prosecutors have recommended, or, as Harris would prefer, probation.
“I am so sorry,” a tearful Harris told the court Friday. “I know my kids are looking at me right now going, ‘Are you kidding me?’ This is not what I taught them. … I am just so sorry, and just ask that you please allow me a chance to make this right.”
Harris is a lifelong Coney Island resident who was elected to the New York Assembly in 2015. Her only child died at the age of 4 but she worked with children for years as a community activist and volunteer.
This past January, Harris was arraigned on an 11-count federal indictment that described a long-running and multipronged fraud scheme that netted her tens of thousands of dollars, including funds defrauded from FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. When the government began probing her finances, she asked people she knew to lie to the FBI.
Though some of the fraud occurred during her time in office, Harris was not accused of using her position of power in the scam, and she resigned from the Assembly in April.
The two wire fraud counts to which Harris pleaded guilty implicate her in scamming a total of $76,165 from the New York City Council, money she purported to be using for rent on a studio for her nonprofit, the Coney Island Generation Gap.
Judge Weinstein said early on in today’s proceedings that he was considering a departure from the guidelines. In an Oct. 4 sentencing memo, prosecutors asked for 33 to 41 months.
To get the nonprofit’s operations subsidized by the city, according to the indictment, Harris billed it as a mentorship program that connected teens and young adults living in Coney Island to media arts.
But once the city transferred the funds to CIGG’s checking account, Harris diverted money meant for the program’s rent to her personal bank account. Prosecutors said she used the money to buy plane and cruise tickets, as well as to make online purchases from Victoria’s Secret and Kohl’s. Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik David Paulsen added Friday that she had added a hot tub and a sauna to her home with CIGG funds.
In defense, Harris’ team argued that she did not write into CIGG’s budget rent for the meeting space, or a salary for herself or her husband. Kids often gathered at their home, they said.
Joel Cohen of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan insisted that it is still possible for Harris to contribute to society, but “we think clearly she doesn’t belong in the Assembly, or with her hands on nonprofit finances.”
The defense also showed a 15-minute video, whose contents were sealed by the court, in which various people spoke on Harris’s behalf. Two staff members at The Fortune Society, the nonprofit where Harris has been working and where she has asked to serve her time, also testified.
Cohen laid out his client’s difficult past in an Oct. 4 sentencing memo, saying that the death of her child sent her spiraling into drug addiction, prostitution and homelessness. Harris was 23 at the time. After she climbed back to become a corrections officer on Rikers Island, she was attacked by an adolescent inmate. Harris is also a breast cancer survivor.
But Paulsen maintained that Harris is still a fraudster, despite having done some good work.
“Most people who run nonprofits and steal from them have done very good things,” he said. He added that as part of her scheme Harris submitted documents where she forged the names of three of the teenagers who now have come to her defense in the video.
“She does good for people, and then she rips them off,” he said.
Paulsen also contested that Harris is simply clumsy with finances. “You can’t get confused and inadvertently forge a lease, or forge people’s signatures,” Paulsen said.
Friday’s proceedings were nontraditional in many ways — Weinstein often does not wear judge’s robes or sit at the bench. The jury box was full of legal scholars who said they were from “all over the world” and in the courtroom to observe.
When he announced the delay in sentencing, Weinstein told the courtroom that his understanding of human complexities has gotten more acute with age.
He said he had already considered Harris’ situation “for some time,” but called it a “unique, difficult case.”
“I want to reflect on it further,” the judge said.
As she stood up to leave the courtroom, Harris wiped her eyes with a tissue. She did not speak to reporters as she walked out of the courthouse with her husband and Fortune Society President and CEO JoAnne Page.
“I’m feeling like I wish it were over,” Cohen said outside the courthouse afterward.
“It’s unusual in my experience,” he continued, referring to a delayed sentencing of this kind. “He’s [Weinstein is] always an extremely thoughtful judge, and we’re hopeful that he sees the arguments that we made and considers them fully — I’m sure he will consider them either way — but considers them fully, and comes down in the direction that we’re looking for.”
In September — ironically, the same day New Yorkers voted on nominees to replace Harris — U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein ordered her to forfeit $10,000. She may also be ordered to pay restitution.
The parties will meet again at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 17.
Before her resignation on April 2, Harris represented District 46 in the state Assembly, which covers the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Coney Island and Dyker Heights. First brought to office in a special election, Harris became the first black woman to represent a majority white district in New York City.
Harris won re-election in 2016 but resigned about three months after the indictment. The seat has been vacant since her resignation.
In last month’s primary election for Harris’ old seat, Mathylde Frontus squeaked past Democratic challenger Ethan Lustig-Egrably by a mere 51 votes, according to the City Board of Elections. She will face Republican Steve Saperstein in November’s general election.
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