Bilked it Back: Coney Island assemblywoman charged with Sandy-relief fraud

Harris by a mile: Coney, Ridge elect first black assemblywoman
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

The Feds charged a Coney Island assemblywoman on Jan. 9 with stealing thousands of dollars from the city and from federal storm-recovery agencies in order to pay for a lavish lifestyle of cruises and clothes.

Assemblywoman Pamela Harris (D–Coney Island), a retired corrections officer who also ran a largely government-funded youth organization called Coney Island Generation Gap before taking office in November 2015, allegedly made up a well-crafted story — backed up with forged documents — that she and her husband were forced out of their home on Neptune Avenue after Hurricane Sandy and into a rented apartment on Staten Island, charging the rent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for years after the 2012 storm.

Additionally, the 11-count indictment alleges that Harris pocketed more than $30,000 the Council handed her in 2015 and 2016 to help her run her youth organization, depositing it directly into her own bank account and soon afterwards going on a shopping spree at Victoria’s Secret and Kohl’s. She also allegedly used the city funds to pay off her mortgage and take vacations with her husband.

The Feds also say that Harris forged documents and her landlord’s signatures to make it appear to Sandy relief agencies she was paying rent elsewhere, that she hid money and investments when she and her husband filed for bankruptcy in 2013, and that she told witnesses to lie when the Federal Bureau of Investigation started snooping around, according to the 21-page indictment.

Harris pleaded “not guilty” in federal court on Jan. 9, and she wasn’t feeling guilty back in 2016 when the assemblywoman repeatedly told this paper back that she was doing nothing wrong. After government watchdog groups called it a conflict of interest for her youth organization to maintain its office in her home even after she stepped down as its executive director, she vowed to boot the group, and claimed that she hadn’t collected a dime in rent from the group since she took office.

“While CIGG has its office in the basement of my house, I receive no rent or compensation of any kind — and have not received any since being elected,” Harris told this paper at the time.

But the charges unsealed in Brooklyn Federal Court on Jan. 9 didn’t come as a shocker to everyone.

Back in 2015, perennial Republican candidate Lucretia Regina-Potter accused Harris, whom she was running against at the time for the open Assembly seat, of funneling the cash she received for her organization right into her own pockets.

Regina-Potter’s warning fell on deaf ears — until the Feds started unraveling Harris’s alleged lies and ultimately hauled her to court — and three years later the Republican said she now feels vindicated.

“I did call her out on it, and nobody wanted to listen and nobody believed me,” said Regina-Potter, who also challenged Harris in 2016. “Now the truth is finally coming out.”

The Brooklyn Democratic Party machine — including the Albany pol’s ally Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island) — tapped Harris to run and helped her cruise to victory as the first black assemblymember to represent the district, which has a large black population in Coney Island and a predominantly white population in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights. A spokesman for Treyger’s office said the indictment came as news to him and that he had not been contacted by any investigators.

Regina-Potter said it’s too early to say if she’ll throw her hat in the ring to run against Harris for a third time.

“Never say never, it’s too soon to tell, we don’t know what the story is — if she’ll resign, be asked to resign,” the Republican said. “I don’t think she should have even run in the first place.”

Harris took over for her predecessor, former Coney Island Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, in a Nov. 2015 special election after he stepped down for a job in the private sector. Brook-Krasny was indicted in April for his alleged role in illegally pumping millions of narcotic painkillers onto the black market.

Harris walked out of court on Tuesday after a friend paid her $150,000 bond, but she’s forbidden from heading far outside the five boroughs — the judge excused her trips up to Albany, saying she may have “to take care of some things.”

Harris, who could face up to 30 years in jail and returns to court on Jan. 16, didn’t comment as she left the courthouse, and her lawyer Joel Cohen declined to say whether she’d step down from her seat.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.