After hearing conflicting portrayals of former state Assemb. Pamela Harris from a prosecutor and defense lawyer as either a serial fraudster or a caring community activist, a Brooklyn federal judge put off her sentencing on corruption charges Friday.
U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, in an unusual step, said he needed more time to weigh the arguments before sentencing Harris for ripping off money in separate scams both from her nonprofit Coney Island youth group and from the federal government with a bogus superstorm Sandy claim.
“As I get older, I’m not a better judge but I listen better and understand better the complex factors,” said Weinstein, 97, who scheduled a hearing next Wednesday to announce his ruling.
Harris, 57, of Coney Island, a Democrat elected in 2015 who resigned as a legislator in April, pleaded guilty to receiving $25,000 for falsely claiming her home was damaged in Sandy and also to stealing $45,000 she had received from the City Council for the Coney Island Generation Gap, a youth nonprofit she ran.
Prosecutors want a 33- to 41-month sentence for crimes that also include witness tampering. They have told Weinstein that even though the crimes didn't involve her legislative duties, he should take into account the “public cynicism” caused by corrupt politicians and said her frauds were ongoing from 2010 until 2017.
"She was doing this over a significant period of time,” Weinstein agreed. “So you can’t call this an aberration.”
But defense lawyer Joel Cohen said Harris, a former correction officer who lost a 4-year-old daughter, had started the nonprofit to help kids on the street in Coney Island by letting them use her own apartment as a clubhouse, had made important contributions to the community and could have gotten the misappropriated funds legally if she budgeted differently.
He presented a video of some of the children in Harris’ program who described contributions she made to their lives and urged Weinstein to sentence her to work in a Fortune Society program for young offenders instead of putting her in prison.
Harris, her voice welling up, told the judge she was sorry. “My kids are looking at me right now going, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” she said. “This is not what I taught them. My behavior is and was wrong.”
Prosecutors said that money Harris misappropriated was used for mortgage payments on her personal residence, installation of a hot tub and sauna, and cash deposits to her checking account.
After Sandy, Harris used relatives to document a phony rental and then tried to get them to lie to agents when she came under investigation. Prosecutors say she also committed bankruptcy fraud by hiding assets in filings for voluntary bankruptcy.