Assemblywoman from Brooklyn charged in fraud scheme involving Superstorm Sandy funds

CONEY ISLAND, Brooklyn (WABC) -- A New York assemblywoman from Brooklyn is accused of defrauding government agencies out of tens of thousands of dollars, including getting payouts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

The 11-count indictment against 57-year-old Pamela Harris of Coney Island was unsealed Tuesday in federal court. She's facing charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, making false statements, bankruptcy fraud, witness tampering and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Harris pleaded not guilty and was released on $150,000 bail. She said nothing as she left the courthouse Tuesday.

Federal officials said the alleged fraud happened between 2012 and 2016 and involved multiple schemes that defrauded NYC Council, FEMA and HUD.

For example, Harris allegedly obtained $23,000 in funding from NYC Council to rent studio space when she was the executive director of a not-for-profit organization. According to court documents, instead of using the money as intended, she diverted the funds to her personal checking account and used the money to pay for personal expenses. She then did the "nearly identical scheme" once she became an assemblywoman.

Pamela Harris, center, leaves Brooklyn Federal court with attorney, Jerry H. Goldfeder, rear, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Also, in the years following Superstorm Sandy, prosecutors said Harris claimed her Coney Island home was damaged by the storm and she had to live on Staten Island. She never actually lived on Staten Island, but instead created fake lease agreements and receipts, forged a landlord's signature on those documents and submitted them to FEMA, which disbursed $24,800 to her. All the while, actual Sandy victims in her district were applying to FEMA for their own money.

"Both before and during her tenure as a public servant, as alleged, Assemblywoman Pamela Harris went to great lengths to defraud local and federal agencies out of thousands of dollars," FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney said. "In fact, at a time when many residents in 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."

When Harris got wind of the grand jury investigation into her alleged schemes, officials said she instructed witnesses to lie to FBI agents -- and they did.

Prosecutors said she used the money gained through the schemes to buy airline tickets and cruise reservations, and also used it to pay her Victoria's Secret bill.

If convicted of the charges, Harris could face more than 50 years in prison.

Harris's attorneys released a statement that read in part, "Ms. Harris has been an invaluable community organizer and a well-respected legislator. Especially given that background, we are disappointed that Ms. Harris was indicted.... we look forward to her day in court and an opportunity there to present the full facts."

The statement said that none of the allegations contained in the indictment relate to her conduct in office.

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