Addressing Past Financial Woes, Assemblywoman Harris Opens Up About Cancer Battle

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Photo courtesy of Pamela Harris/Facebook

Photo courtesy of Pamela Harris/Facebook

Amid media reports that she and her husband had fallen into debt and filed for bankruptcy in 2013, Assemblywoman Pamela Harris penned an open letter Tuesday, attributing her financial hardship to series of health crises, including her own battle with breast cancer.

The assemblywoman said she was initially reluctant to talk about her health and financial struggles, but felt compelled to set the record straight in light of “personal attacks” against her and her family.

“I am so happy to be able to say I survived cancer; I know I can survive this too. I, like so many of you, fell on hard times, and I, like so many of you, refused to give up on my family or my community,” she wrote. “I didn’t back down from the challenge of combating poverty, and I will never back down in the fight to put others back on that same path to success because I know, without a doubt, that Brooklyn deserves nothing less.”

In the letter, the assemblywoman described her diagnosis with breast cancer in 2006, and the difficulties her family faced shortly thereafter:

In 2006, I received the traumatic news that I had developed breast cancer. Just three short weeks later, our family was once again blindsided as my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Together, the cost of health care for our family was astronomical – but still, we were determined to push through.

In the following years, I underwent three major surgeries that ultimately resulted in the removal of my right breast. My body initially rejected the procedure, I was sick for months and, if it were not for the services of the wonderful, caring and experienced staff at Saint Vincent’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, I may not have survived.

Unfortunately, though, the worst wasn’t over for my family. In 2012, my husband Leon was employed as a boiler mechanic when he was seriously injured on the job, leaving him unable to work and severely impacting our household income. Not long after, Superstorm Sandy devastated our community and destroyed the modest Coney Island home that we own.

Left with no other options after so many brutal financial hits, my husband and I made the difficult decision to declare Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Contrary to the New York Daily News’ hurtful insinuations, we were determined to pay back the debts we owed and immediately set up a repayment plan. Since filing, we’ve made payments on our mortgage and to the many creditors who helped us survive years of unforeseen illness, injury and natural disaster.

According to court papers, obtained by Bensonhurst Bean, Harris and her husband Leon owe money to at least 15 creditors, including more than $30,000 in state and federal back taxes and another $27,000 in defaulted mortgage payments.

In order to declare Chapter 13 bankruptcy — which is typically used to stop a foreclosure, to prevent the accrual of interest while paying back taxes, or to rectify missed mortgage payments — a debtor must have a 3- to 5- year repayment plan that is approved by a judge.

The New York Daily News reports that the trustee overseeing the Harris’ case challenged the bankruptcy agreement when Harris and her husband failed to submit a copy of their 2015 tax returns by the required deadline.

Once she regained her health and recouped some of her income, Harris said her first priority was to continue her work with Coney Island Generation Gap (CIGG), the non-profit organization founded in 2003 to give neighborhood youth more opportunities to succeed. Since taking office, following a 2015 special election, the assemblywoman has been scrutinized for maintaining “too cozy” a relationship with the non-profit, allowing it to continue to operate out of her home.

Harris reiterated that she and her husband have never received rent, compensation, or financial assistance of any kind from CIGG. The $5,000 to $20,000 in rent-related income indicated in her 2015 financial disclosure forms is from a tenant in a unit of her building who is in not affiliated with CIGG, she said.

Harris is in the midst of a bruising primary battle for the 46th Assembly seat, and is up against Bay Ridge activist and former Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny chief of staff Kate Cucco. Cucco’s slate includes Chris McCreight and Brigitte Purvis, who are challenging Harris’ allies Dilia Schack and Councilman Mark Treyger for the District Leader positions. The primary election will be held on September 13.