Brookyln assemblywoman accused of pocketing Sandy money, other schemes

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — An assemblywoman in Brooklyn is accused of stealing tens of thousands in public funds, including money meant to help victims of Hurricane Sandy rebuild, then allegedly told witnesses to lie to the FBI about it, according to an 11-count indictment unsealed Tuesday.

Pamela Harris was elected to the New York State Assembly in 2015 during a special election to fill an open seat in the district she now represents, which includes Bay Ridge, Coney Island and Dyker Heights.

Before and during her time in office, prosecutors allege, Harris "went to great lengths" to defraud both local and federal goverment agencies and tried to get even more.

Harris said nothing as she walked out of the U.S. Eastern District Courthouse in Brooklyn.

The charges against her reveal "a gross betrayal of public trust," Mark Peters, commissioner of the NYC Department of Investigation, said.

From 2012 to 2014, Harris allegedly defrauded FEMA out of nearly $25,000 by claiming she was forced out of her Brooklyn home because it was so badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

She allegedly submitted a fake lease and "bogus" rent payment receipts to the agency, prosecutors said, because in reality, she was still living at the home she said was uninhabitable and was pocketing the FEMA money.

"At a time when many residents on her district were dealing with the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Harris was busy brewing a storm of her own, one that resulted in her receiving significant payouts by the very federal agency charged with helping those truly in need," FBI assistant director in charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement.

In 2013, Harris filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection while receiving $1,550 a month from FEMA. In her filing, however, she allegedly claimed she was receiving $1,200 a month from the same landlord she told FEMA she was paying $1,550 a month in rent.

"Neither statement was true," prosecutors said.

When Harris was the executive director of the nonprofit Coney Island Generation Gap, she allegedly forged a lease and submitted it to the NYC Council, claiming that her organization was going to rent a studio space. She was given nearly $23,000 in discretionary funding -- then diverted the money to her personal checking account and used some of it to pay for personal expenses, prosecutors said.

That was 2014 and 2015.

The next year, prosecutors said, she carried out a nearly identical scheme. This time, she was a sitting assemblywoman and allegedly personally used $11,400 that she had claimed was for her nonprofit.

Also during her time as an assemblywoman, Harris allegedly submitted fake documents to the NYC Build It Back Program and made other false claims to get the program, meant to support residents severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy, to pay for "substantial construction" to her home.

Prosecutors said that when Harris learned a grand jury was investigating her, she allegedly told witnesses to lie to FBI agents, which those witnesses did.

In all, Harris faces two counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, four counts of making false statements, two counts of bankruptcy fraud, one count of witness tampering and one count of conscpiracy to obstruct justice, prosecutors said.

If convicted, she faces a maximum of 30 years in prison on the most serious charge -- making false statements to FEMA; a maximum of 20 years on the wire fraud charge, witness tampering and obstruction of justice conspiracy charges; and a maximum of 5 years in prison on each of the bankruptcy fraud or other false statements charges.