Locals call on Coney Island assemblywoman to resign after indictment for fraud and obstruction

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

Coney Island’s assemblywoman must resign after the Feds charged her with stealing thousands of dollars from the city and federal storm-recovery agencies, locals demand.

Assemblywoman Pamela Harris (D–Coney Island) was indicted on Jan. 9 on 11 counts, including fraud and witness tampering, for an alleged scheme to steal $30,000 in city funds intended for the youth organization she ran, and thousands more in Hurricane Sandy recovery aid — accusations which one of her constituents said should compel her to immediately give up her seat in Albany for the sake of public trust.

“From what this is looking like, she should absolutely resign,” said Erik Shell. “This is extremely unethical. It’s defrauding multiple government agencies. It matters that this stuff is held to a really high standard because there’s a lot of trust that the public puts in non-profits and the laws.”

Harris pleaded “not guilty” in Brooklyn Federal court to charges that she pocketed more than $30,000 the Council gave her in 2015 and 2016 to help her run her youth organization, Coney Island Generation Gap — instead using it to fund shopping sprees 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 charged that she made up a sob story — backed up with forged documents — that she and her husband were forced out of their Neptune Avenue home by Hurricane Sandy and had to move into an apartment, charging the rent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for years after the 2012 storm. Prosecutors also say 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 investigating last spring, according to the 21-page indictment.

Even one constituent who worked on the pol’s 2016 and 2017 campaigns and then interned in her office said that he doubted Harris could be an effective assemblywoman now with these charges hanging over her.

“I’m sure she lost the respect of a lot of people,” said Alex Pellitteri. “I think it’s really important that we have representation that’s effective and can get things done, and I think that’s going to be really hard for her to do going forward.”

Pellitteri said he knocked on doors with Harris during her re-election campaign and visited senior centers with her, and that the charges against her shocked him given his personal experiences with her.

“I was really shocked when I found out,” he said. “I believed her when she said that she had the best intentions.”

Harris left court on Jan. 9 after a friend paid her $150,000 bond, but is due back in court Jan. 23, and is forbidden from leaving the state. She could face several decades in jail if convicted on all charges, with 30 years just for the top charge of lying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But one local said she would prefer to see the crooked pol pay back the funds she stole rather than rot in jail.

“The amount of time I saw was insane — serial killers don’t get that much jail time,” said Ida Sanoff. “I would like to see, if possible, a restitution of money. I think that her sitting in jail would just cost the taxpayers even more money.”

Shell agreed that restitution would be better than incarceration.

“There needs to be money coming back to the taxpayers,” he said. “These are the people who she defrauded, that’s where the money should be going. I’m not sure if locking her up in prison is going to solve that.”

Harris’s former intern, however, said that if convicted, she should face the same punishment any fraudster would.

“I think if politicians are going to go to Albany and create laws that we’re expected to follow, they should have to follow them too. They’re no exception,” said Pellitteri. “If this is proven true, then she should go to jail, and be punished just like everyone else.”

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