Brooklyn assemblywoman accused of Superstorm Sandy money fraud

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Assemblywoman Pamela Harris leaves federal court in Brooklyn, Jan. 9, 2018.

NEW YORK (AP) — Authorities on Tuesday said a New York state assemblywoman cheated the federal government out of Superstorm Sandy money and New York City out of funds intended for charities, spending some of the proceeds of the crimes on her mortgage, vacations and merchandise from Victoria's Secret.

Pamela Harris, 57, a former correction officer elected as a Democrat in November 2015, faces an 11-count indictment in Brooklyn federal court. She pleaded not guilty during an arraignment Tuesday and was released on $150,000 bond.

The assemblywoman representing Bay Ridge, Coney Island, Dyker Heights and other Brooklyn communities allegedly committed the crimes between 2012 and 2016.

Prosecutors said Harris pocketed $25,000 in federal funds by falsely claiming that Superstorm Sandy chased her from her Coney Island residence.

They said she committed other frauds, including cheating the New York City Council out of discretionary funds meant for non-profits. An obstruction-of-justice count alleged she convinced others to lie between last March and May after she became aware of a grand jury probe.

Her attorneys, Joel Cohen and Jerry Goldfeder, issued a statement following the arraignment calling Harris "an invaluable community organizer and a well-regarded legislator."

They wrote, "Especially given that background, we are disappointed that Ms. Harris was indicted. ... We look forward to her day in court and opportunity there to present the full facts."

The lawyers noted that "importantly, none of the allegations contained in the indictment relate to Ms. Harris's conduct in office."

A hearing was set for Jan. 16 before Judge Jack Weinstein.

According to the indictment, Harris spent some of the proceeds of crimes on personal expenses, including airline and cruise tickets for herself and her spouse totaling nearly $10,000. The indictment also said she made online payments to several retailers, including Victoria's Secret, and paid her monthly mortgage.

U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue said in a release that Harris defrauded the government of tens of thousands of dollars.

"When she learned that law enforcement was investigating her various fraud schemes, she pressured witnesses to lie to the FBI and cover them up," Donoghue said.

William F. Sweeney, Jr., head of New York's FBI office, said that "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."

Harris had been expected in Albany on Tuesday, the third day of the 2018 legislative session. Many lawmakers first learned about her indictment when they arrived at the state Capitol Tuesday morning.

"We are just hearing of this. They are very serious changes and it's important to let the justice system take its course," said Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Democratic Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx.

More than 30 lawmakers have left office since 2000 following allegations of corruption or ethical wrongdoing, prompting regular calls for tougher ethics rules in state government. Term limits and new restrictions on campaign contributions and income from side jobs have all been proposed, and are likely to be debated again this year, though lawmakers have shown little interest in ambitious reform.

"I'm actually very disheartened to hear that," Senate Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, told reporters after learning about Harris' indictment. "That's not good for anyone."

Klepper reported from Albany.