January 9, 2018 / 7:50 PM / 2 months ago

New York state lawmaker charged with fraud, obstructing justice

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York state lawmaker was charged with 11 counts of fraud and obstruction of justice, accused of cheating government agencies out of tens of thousands of dollars, including hurricane relief money, prosecutors said on Tuesday.

In four alleged schemes between 2012 to 2016, Assemblywoman Pamela Harris, 57, submitted falsified documents to obtain government funds for personal use, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Harris was arraigned on Tuesday at a U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

Her attorneys said in a statement that Harris, who represents a district in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Harris, who was elected in November 2015 in a special election and returned to office in 2016, is also accused of defrauding a bankruptcy court and falsely claiming to have been forced out of her residence by Hurricane Sandy to get financial assistance, it said.

Before and during her tenure as assemblywoman, Harris allegedly went to great lengths to defraud local and federal agencies, FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney said in a statement.

“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,” Sweeney said.

She was also accused of obstructing justice by instructing witnesses in 2017 to lie to FBI agents after becoming aware of the grand jury’s investigation into her alleged crimes.

“We look forward to her day in court and an opportunity there to present the full facts,” her attorneys Joel Cohen and Jerry Goldfeder said.

In one of the four alleged schemes, between August 2014 and July 2015, when Harris was executive director of a not-for-profit organization in Brooklyn, she is accused of defrauding New York City Council of $22,800 by falsely claiming the money would go toward rent for a studio art space for community use.

After submitting a forged lease agreement, Harris transferred the funds to her personal checking account and used the money to pay for personal expenses, including monthly mortgage payments, clothing and travel tickets, prosecutors said.

In another scheme, she is accused of defrauding the Federal Emergency Management Agency of nearly $25,000 in temporary housing assistance by falsely claiming that she had been forced out of her Coney Island residence by Sandy, claiming that it was uninhabitable.

If convicted on all 11 counts, Harris faces a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison.

Editing by Frank McGurty and Rosalba O'Brien

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