Former Coney Island assemblywoman pleads guilty to fraud, lying, witness tampering

Locals call on Coney Island assemblywoman to resign after indictment for fraud and obstruction
Associated Press / Mary Altaffer

She took the money and ran — until she got caught.

Coney Island’s embattled former assemblywoman, Pamela Harris, pleaded guilty in federal court on June 12 to charges of stealing thousands of dollars from city and federal storm-recovery agencies to pay for lavish personal vacations and lingerie. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York said the government’s prosecution of Harris proved that politicians are subject to the same laws as their constituents and will be punished if they try to flout them.

“Elected by the people of her district to serve with honesty and integrity, Pamela Harris defrauded government programs out of thousands of dollars, using the money for her personal benefit,” said Richard Donoghue. “The defendant’s guilty plea today clearly demonstrates that elected officials are not above the law and will be held responsible for their crimes.”

Harris — a retired corrections officer — pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two counts of wire fraud, one count of making false statements to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and one count of witness tampering.

She made up a well-crafted story — backed up with forged documents — that she and her husband were forced out of their Coney Island home after Hurricane Sandy and into a rented apartment on Staten Island, charging the rent to the federal relief agency for two years after the 2012 storm, and pocketing nearly $25,000 in the scam, according to prosecutors.

And between August 2014 and January 2017, Harris also pocketed more than $45,000 the Council allocated to her to rent an office for her youth organization, the Coney Island Generation Gap. She secured those funds with a forged lease agreement and then deposited them directly into her own bank account, using them to pay off her mortgage, take vacations with her husband, and go on shopping sprees at Victoria’s Secret and Kohl’s, according to her January indictment.

Back in 2016, Harris told this paper that she didn’t benefit from receiving any rent payments for the organization she founded — even though it was based in the basement of her home.

“While Coney Island Generation Gap 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,” she said at the time.

The Feds also charged that Harris told witnesses to lie when the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents started asking questions — a charge Harris admitted to when she pleaded guilty to witness tampering, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Harris faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison on the charge of making the false statements to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a maximum of 20 years on each of the two wire fraud and also then witness tampering count. Her sentencing is set for September 26, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Harris was initially indicted on 11 counts on Jan. 9 and left court after a friend paid her $150,000 bond. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office confirmed that the seven other counts that Harris was initially charged with but did not plead guilty to have not been dropped, but did not answer a follow-up inquiry about the status of those charges by press time.

One veteran political strategist said that the U.S. Attorney’s office is likely still investigating the other charges — and that they may even be investigating other people implicated in them.

“The implication is that it ain’t over, that there’s a reason that she’s not being sentenced on those other charges,” said Hank Sheinkopf. “Some might say that there’s more to the investigation than we know right now.”

Harris announced her resignation from the Assembly in a letter to Speaker Carl Heastie nearly three months after she was indicted, on April 2, ensuring that the district will be unrepresented until after the November 6 election, since she announced her resignation too late for the April 24 special election ballot.

Harris initially came to power in a November 2015 special election, three months after the sudden resignation of Alec Brook-Krasny, who was indicted last year for his alleged role in an illegal scheme to funnel millions of narcotic painkillers onto the black market and rip off the healthcare system.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.