On a visit to the troubled Rikers Island jail facilities a few years ago, Councilmember Daniel Dromm was taken aback by an unannounced companion accompanying a group that included council members and the corrections commissioner.
The companion was Norman Seabrook, the powerful president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association who has held that post for 21 years.
Dromm says he was surprised to see a union official there, watching over them. He was more surprised by Seabrook’s response when Dromm asked about the treatment of prisoners in solitary confinement.
Seabrook “became enraged,” Dromm says, “screaming at me.” Dromm says that Seabrook questioned the councilmember’s right to be on Rikers Island. “A total bully,” Dromm calls Seabrook. “It speaks to the bravado of a man who thinks he’s above the law.”
On Wednesday morning, that perception was paired with serious allegations. FBI agents arrested Seabrook at his Morris Park home and charged with taking kickbacks — including $60,000 passed hand-to-hand in a Ferragamo bag — in a corruption case that could have dramatic effects in NYC politics and on Rikers Island itself
You scratch my back. . .
Seabrook is accused of investing $20 million of union money, largely his members’ pension funds, in Manhattan hedge fund Platinum Partners, for a price.
Allegedly, Seabrook got a cut of Platinum’s profits from the investment, funneled through a go-between, as well as an initial fee. Murray Huberfeld, a manager at Platinum, has also been charged.
It started on a trip to the Dominican Republic in 2013, paid for by the go-between, Jona Rechnitz, a Brooklyn businessman and donor to Mayor Bill de Blasio who plead guilty to fraud conspiracy charges and is now cooperating with the government, according to media accounts.
Rechnitz made the trip with Seabrook and an unidentified police officer, according to the criminal complaint. After a night of drinking, the complaint alleges, Seabrook groused that he “worked hard to invest COBA’s money” and wasn’t benefitting personally from it. It was time that “Norman Seabrook got paid,” Seabrook allegedly said.
Rechnitz also allegedly paid for Seabrook’s airfare to Israel, California and Las Vegas. But back in NYC, things heated up. In late 2014, after Seabrook had successfully deposited funds with Platinum — including more than 40 percent of the union’s assets — he demanded his kickback. So Rechnitz bought an $820 Ferragamo bag — Seabrook’s favorite brand, according to the complaint — and used it to stash the $60,000 cash. The size and shape of the bag has not been publicly identified but this bag, at the right price, should give you an idea.
The bag, along with 10 pairs of Ferragamo shoes, were found by FBI agents in Seabrook’s house Wednesday morning.
A tale as old as time
Corruption in NYC is nothing new, from the case of police officer Frank Serpico which led to the investigations of the Knapp Commission in the 70s, to former Assemb. Sheldon Silver’s guilty verdict earlier this year.
The Seabrook case is just one of the reported local, state and federal investigations swirling around New York City at the moment, encompassing the NYPD and the fundraising activities of the mayor’s office.
It shows the effect corruption can have on individual New Yorkers — in Seabrook’s case, through the influence he has wielded for decades, a power which has sometimes stood in the way of reforming Rikers and changing the attitudes and actions of corrections officers.
Retired Correction Commissioner Martin Horn says Seabrook was a “more effective and aggressive leader” than other municipal union heads and was adept at advocating for his members’ needs (of course, that advocacy allegedly didn’t extend to their pension funds).
Seabrook had strategic relationships with elected officials, Horn says. Indeed, Gov. George Pataki appointed Seabrook to the MTA board. He was one of the first union leaders to support the mayoral candidacy of Michael Bloomberg and endorsed Bill de Blasio for mayor after John Liu's candidacy failed.
In negotiating with Seabrook, Horn says there was always a “quid pro quo.”
Horn describes an early effort to combine the agencies of probation and correction for efficiency, which required approval in Albany. It was going nowhere, and Horn says he was told state legislators wouldn’t act unless Seabrook was in agreement.
So Horn went to Seabrook to discuss, and he says Seabrook asked what he would get in return for his support.
“I had nothing to give him,” Horn says.
The agencies remain separate.
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Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that Norman Seabrook endorsed Mayor Bill de Blasio in the general election, not the Democratic primary.