ALBANY, N.Y. — Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn announced an 11-count indictment against a Brooklyn assemblywoman on Tuesday, alleging a raft of fraud, witness tampering and other charges, just the latest allegation of corruption and bad behavior among legislators in Albany.
Harris, 57, a retired New York City correction officer who was elected in a special election in 2015, was arraigned Tuesday afternoon before a U.S. magistrate after prosecutors released a lengthy dissection of her alleged crimes.
In one scheme, authorities accused Harris of trying to capitalize on a natural disaster, improperly receiving nearly $25,000 in federal funds by falsely claiming that she had been displaced from her Coney Island home by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In another, she is accused of siphoning money from a nonprofit she ran to pay her mortgage, take vacations and shop at Victoria’s Secret, according to the indictment.
Harris pleaded not guilty to all 11 charges. Her lawyers, Joel Cohen and Jerry H. Goldfeder, called Harris an “invaluable community organizer and a well-regarded legislator.”
“We are disappointed that Ms. Harris was indicted,” the lawyers said, noting that none of the charges were related to her conduct as a lawmaker.
Indeed, many of the allegations brought against Harris predate her time in public office, when she served as the executive director of a nonprofit organization, Coney Island Generation Gap, in Brooklyn. The indictment cites a series of schemes to defraud government agencies including the New York City Council, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is also accused of making false statements to a federal bankruptcy court in connection with a Chapter 13 filing she made in 2013.
The charges suggest a striking degree of planning and elaborate attempts to cover up illegal actions. Prosecutors said, for example, that Harris used a forged lease to draw down discretionary funds from the City Council, money that was supposed to be used to rent a studio space for the nonprofit, which seeks to involve children and young adults in the arts. Instead, Harris diverted the money to her personal checking account. All told, some $35,000 was received in two separate instances using such funds, prosecutors said.
In the Hurricane Sandy scheme, Harris is accused of creating fake lease agreements and receipts, and forging a landlord’s signature, to receive housing assistance money from FEMA for 14 months after the storm, a ploy that she also used to receive financial assistance to repair her Coney Island home in 2016. And once she became aware of a federal investigation last year, Harris told potential witnesses to lie to federal agents, the authorities said.
At a brief arraignment, Magistrate Judge Ramon E. Reyes Jr. limited Harris’ personal travel to New York City and Long Island, though she could be permitted to go upstate in her capacity as a legislator.
“I understand you might have to go to Albany to take care of some things,” Reyes said.
Lawmakers in the Capitol seemed surprised by the news, which broke just as the Legislature was starting its business on Tuesday morning. “They are very serious charges and it’s important to let the justice system take its course,” said Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Carl E. Heastie, the Bronx assemblyman who serves as the chamber’s speaker.
Charles Barron, a fellow assemblyman from Brooklyn, said the charges were shocking and sad, if still unproven, and bound to reflect badly on the state Assembly, whose former leader, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, was convicted of federal corruption charges in 2015. (Silver’s conviction was vacated last year, but he is expected to be retried in 2018.)
“Once you violate the trust of the people,” Barron said, “that makes it very, very difficult.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.