Neither Side Shows Much Love for Witness in Union Boss’s Retrial
Posted August 2, 2018 10:50 p.m. EDT
Updated August 2, 2018 10:54 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — For the second time in less than a year, Norman Seabrook, the former longtime president of New York City’s correction officers’ union, went on trial on federal corruption charges.
And like Seabrook’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial in November, this one may hinge on the credibility of the government’s key witness, Jona S. Rechnitz — a point that prosecutors and the defense harped on during their opening statements on Thursday.
Rechnitz, a wealthy real estate scion, had helped to orchestrate a bribery scheme and testified against Seabrook. One juror in the first trial described Rechnitz, who pleaded guilty to a fraud conspiracy charge, as a “straight-up liar.”
Margaret Lynaugh, one of Seabrook’s lawyers, said in her opening statement that the case should be called “Jona Rechnitz versus Norman Seabrook.”
“First, Jona Rechnitz is a pathological liar,” Lynaugh said. “And second, Jona Rechnitz always takes care of Jona Rechnitz.”
Seabrook, 58, once one of the city’s most powerful and feared labor leaders, has been charged with steering $20 million of union money into a risky hedge fund in 2014 in return for promised kickbacks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The government has said he was ultimately paid $60,000 in cash, delivered to him in a designer bag purchased from his favorite luxury goods store, Salvatore Ferragamo.
“This is a case about corruption — corruption involving lies, bribes and betrayal,” a prosecutor, Lara Pomerantz, told the jury in the government’s opening statement.
Seabrook was “a union leader who is supposed to serve the common good but became blinded by greed,” Pomerantz said. She added that Seabrook had decided to sell his power “once he saw an opportunity to get paid.”
Seabrook, who had led the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association for more than 20 years, is being tried on charges of honest services wire fraud and conspiracy.
In Seabrook’s first trial, Rechnitz’s testimony seemed to dominate the case, as he spent six days on the witness stand, describing how he had ingratiated himself with influential New York political figures, like Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as police officials and Seabrook. Rechnitz testified last year that he and a friend, Jeremy Reichberg, helped to raise thousands of dollars for de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign and that de Blasio, as a candidate, had visited his office and given him his personal email address and cellphone number.
De Blasio “told me to call if there’s anything I need, always be in touch,” Rechnitz testified, adding, “He really appreciated my support and friendship.”
In the weeks after de Blasio became mayor-elect, Rechnitz said he called him weekly. “He took my calls,” he said. “I mean, we were friends.”
Rechnitz eventually became entangled in federal and state investigations into de Blasio’s campaign financing — both inquiries were closed without charges being brought — as well as the prosecution of members of the Police Department accused of taking bribes.
After the campaign financing probes were closed, de Blasio said that he, his staff and his colleagues had “acted in a manner that was legal and appropriate and ethical throughout.”
De Blasio has also said that he did not know Rechnitz and Reichberg well, describing them as “part of a slew of people who suddenly wanted to be connected to our world when I won the election.”
Pomerantz, the prosecutor, acknowledged in her opening statement that Rechnitz was “a criminal” who had paid for favors from law enforcement and lied repeatedly to friends, family and business associates. “We are not asking you to like Jona Rechnitz,” she said.
It was Rechnitz who testified at the first trial that he had bought the Ferragamo bag, placed the $60,000 inside and delivered it to Seabrook.
On Thursday, Lynaugh, the defense lawyer, told the jury that the only evidence to support the bribery allegation was Rechnitz’s word. “At bottom,” she said, “this is a one-witness case.” She called Rechnitz a man who would lie about anything “to save his own skin.”
Prosecutors have said that in late 2013, Seabrook told Rechnitz while the two were traveling together in the Dominican Republic that he had worked hard to invest the union’s money and it was time “Norman Seabrook got paid.”
With Rechnitz helping to orchestrate the scheme, the government said, Seabrook agreed to direct the union money to the hedge fund, Platinum Partners, in exchange for kickbacks of $100,000 to $150,000 per year.
A co-defendant of Seabrook’s in the first trial, Murray Huberfeld, Platinum’s founder, pleaded guilty in May to one count of wire fraud conspiracy.
One piece of evidence that Pomerantz told the jury about on Thursday that had not been presented at the first trial was that Platinum Partners had gone bankrupt and the union had lost all but $1 million of its $20 million investment.
After the opening statements were completed and the jury had been excused, another prosecutor, Martin S. Bell, rose and complained that Seabrook had uttered an expletive during the prosecution’s opening. “I could hear it,” Bell said.
Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said he had not heard the remark, but warned Seabrook to remain impassive throughout the trial, regardless of how he felt. Seabrook said he understood.
As the trial adjourned for a lunch break, Seabrook denied to a reporter that he had made the remark. Later, after the trial’s first day had ended, Seabrook was asked in the hallway how he felt. He smiled. “I can tell you this — God is still on the throne,” he said.