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Couple with Jamestown ties accused of defrauding relatives, friends, others

They told their relatives in Jamestown that they were chummy with Vice President Cheney, former New York Gov. George E. Pataki and other government big shots, authorities contend.

They even claimed that they could bribe some U.S. senators to make sure that Jamestown residents in the military got "safer" assignments for duty in the Mideast.

William and Lisa Harris duped their local relatives out of at least $350,000 by making a series of false claims, FBI agents say, but the law caught up with the couple this week.

The Harrises were arrested near Seattle on Wednesday, and within the next few weeks, they are expected to appear in Buffalo's federal courthouse to face charges that they scammed their Jamestown relatives.

"All of the schemes revolved around William Harris' supposed connections with high-level government officials, including Vice President Cheney and [former] Governor Pataki," Jamestown-based FBI Special Agent Peter J. Langrish said in court papers.

William Harris, 50, and Lisa Harris, 32, formerly of Golden, Colo., are suspected by authorities of engaging in other fraud schemes all over the country, including a number of schemes targeting people they met at churches.

Lisa Harris is a Jamestown native, and the couple's victims include her aunts, uncles and friends in Western New York, authorities said. Agents said they believe the couple used stolen money to finance a lifestyle that included "extensive gambling" at casinos and gambling Web sites.

"Frauds are committed and lies are told every day. What makes this case unusual is the level of deception and the fact that they victimized their own family," said James P. Kennedy, criminal prosecutions chief for the U.S. attorney's office. "These people told some whoppers."

The court papers identified Harris' aunt, Julia McMahon, and her uncle, Jamestown real estate executive Richard Benedetto, as two of the main victims.

Among the schemes alleged so far:

The Harrises told family members they would help them make a "very profitable investment" in a new company that was a spinoff of the Halliburton oil services company, formerly headed by Cheney. Family members were persuaded to make out $5,000 checks in the Harrises' names, but there was no spinoff company.

In a late 2004 e-mail, Harris thanked one family member for his check.

"The financial reward because of Lisa's love will be extraordinary," Harris wrote.

A second Halliburton investment scam was conducted in early 2005. This time, Harris told family members they could expect a total return of $300,000, and he thanked them for "letting me be a part of your family."

Last year, when three members of the Benedetto family were serving in "high risk" military assignments in the Middle East, William Harris told them he could arrange safer assignments for them by paying $60,000 in bribes to three U.S. senators.

According to court papers, Richard Benedetto sent a $20,000 check, made out to Lisa Harris, for his share of the bribe payments in April 2006. William Harris persuaded Benedetto to travel to New York City to "supposedly meet with the senators if required." Harris claimed he was meeting with the senators while Benedetto waited at a hotel.

"We believe there was no meeting and no bribe paid to senators," Kennedy said. "We believe Harris was playing on his family members' vulnerabilities -- their fears for the safety of their children."

In a third Halliburton scam last year, William Harris told Andrew Jarrett, an employee of Benedetto's, that he could make him big money on investments involving gold, oil and Halliburton. FBI agents said Harris claimed he had connections with Cheney and that he was a federal agent with ties to the CIA. Jarrett lost $11,000 on the bogus investment.

At one point, agents said, Harris pretended to be talking on the telephone with a CIA chief "about how they had actually shot down one of the planes on Sept. 11th."

Also in 2006, the FBI said, Harris learned that a friend of Jarrett's had a serious medical condition. Agents said Harris told Jarrett he knew a doctor who could help, but it would cost $20,000. The Harrises fled Jamestown before any payment was made.

Why did their Jamestown family members fall for such schemes?

Richard Benedetto declined to comment, hanging up on a Buffalo News reporter. Before ending the call, Benedetto said he was upset about what he claimed were inaccuracies in an Associated Press story that was filed Wednesday in Seattle. He declined to say what the inaccuracies were.

The Associated Press story quoted Benedetto as calling William Harris a "dirtbag" and describing Lisa Harris as worse, "because it's her family."

When asked about the purported attempt to bribe senators, Benedetto was quoted as saying: "It's embarrassing. I thought . . . if this guy's telling me the truth and I didn't do it, and something happened, I'd regret it for the rest of my life."

Several other members of the Benedetto and McMahon families also declined to comment Thursday.

The Harrises, who had an infant with them when they were arrested near Seattle, are charged with felony counts of mail fraud and wire fraud.

According to court papers, William Harris told family members that he made connections with Cheney while Harris was "with the Army's Delta Force and/or the Navy Seals." He also told family members he had handled security for Pataki.

The investigation is continuing, and additional charges may be filed in several other cities, Kennedy said.

Staff reporter Amanda Erickson contributed to this story.


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