Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Blackface Photo Used to Discredit NYC Bribery Witness

Cross-examining a disgraced power broker whose testimony has sullied several New York City offices over the past week, the defense sought to undermine the witness’s credibility on Thursday by introducing photographs of the man in blackface.

MANHATTAN (CN) – The disgraced power broker called to testify this week against an indicted union leader has spent the better part of six days narrating an elaborate pay-for-play scheme.

Jona Rechnitz’s testimony has sullied the names of a New York City mayor, right before an election, and threatened to send powerful law enforcement figures to prison.

Rechnitz’s credibility as the government’s star witness took a plunge Thursday, however, when confronted about a racist costume.

Leaked to the New York Post on Halloween, Rechnitz’s photo shows him dressed as the Abracadabra store's cartoonish “Daddy Pimp” — decked out with gold teeth, dark shades, a blinged-out necklace, a scarlet robe, and a face slathered in black paint.

Court documents show that Rechnitz called former President Barack Obama and another unidentified person a “schvartze,” a derogatory Yiddish word for black people.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell, who is black, initially urged the judge not to admit the explosive evidence.

“It goes without saying that blackface, as it has appeared over the decades since coming into fashion in 18th century American theater, is vile,” Bell wrote in a memo on Tuesday. "Racial epithets and derogatory racial terminology are abhorrent. The practice of blackface and the use of such terms are widely and correctly derided, and are seen as markers of either a lamentable ignorance of their history, at best, or an inexcusable racial animus, at worst.”

But Bell argued that exposing these facts about the government's star witness would prejudice the jury.

Although he would not allow the photo into evidence, U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter allowed defense attorneys for former prison union chief Norman Seabrook and hedge fund tycoon Murray Huberfeld to grill him about the blackface image.

Seabrook, the former president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, stands accused of steering $20 million in his workers’ retirement funds to Huberfeld’s fund Platinum Partners in exchange for $60,000 in a Salvatore Ferragamo satchel.

Rechnitz claims he passed off that bribe in the bag in a vehicle near La Brouchette, a pricey kosher steakhouse in Midtown.

Seabrook’s attorney Paul Shechtman sought to parade the racial skeletons in Rechnitz’s closet before the jury to undermine the witness’s credibility.

Though Seabrook is black, both Rechnitz and Huberfeld are white Orthodox Jews. Addressing Seabook’s diverse jury Thursday — at least five of them black — Rechnitz chalked the pimp get-up to an innocent Purim costume.

Claiming not to know what “blackface” means, Rechnitz said that he wore white face paint with it on some days and black paint on others. He also denied that “schvartze” was a slur, noting that its literal translation means “black.”


Defense attorney Henry Mazurek scoffed at Rechnitz’s denials.

“You lied to this jury when you said it was not offensive to wear blackface at a party,” Mazurek told him.

“How dare you!” Rechnitz snapped back.

Mazurek noted that Rechnitz had been in a position to know better: A Beverly Hills native who went to Yeshiva University in New York City, Rechnitz lived most of his life in two cosmopolitan cities, and hoped to snap a position on the board of the Simon Weisenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to combating racism and anti-Semitism.

So ended the final day of testimony for Rechnitz, a witness crucial for the government against not only Seabrook and Huberfeld, but multiple high-ranking NYPD officers whose trials have not yet begun.

Over the course of six days, Rechnitz told a jury that he bought favors from Mayor Bill de Blasio for a bundled $100,000 campaign donation, and he chaperoned high-ranking police officers as they cavorted with a prostitute on a private jet to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl.

Rechnitz insisted that he snoozed because he was feeling sick when he saw NYPD Inspector James Grant and another officer with the sex worker.

It was only one of the claims that defense attorneys relished in undermining.

Mazurek said that he told prosecutors last year that he “probably didn’t do anything” but he “wasn’t sure,” according to the government’s notes.

“No, I’m positive that I never said that,” Rechnitz replied.

Cross-examination also undermined Rechnitz’s boasts about his influence over de Blasio, less than a week before New Yorkers decide whether to give him a second term.

Rechnitz claimed that his generous donations bought him favors from City Hall, earning him the mayor’s assistance over personal real-estate fights involving water expenses and Airbnb violations.

Mazurek pointed out that Rechnitz lost all of those fights.

“Your special access to the mayor didn’t result in anything that a normal citizen wouldn’t be able to accomplish,” he said.

“I don’t agree with that,” Rechnitz said.

In an ironic email with a smily emoticon in the subject line, Rechnitz wrote: “Do I deserve to be the head of your commission on police corruption?”

Though Rechnitz never did land a spot on this commission, the major donor bragged he did land a ceremonial spot on the mayor’s inauguration committee, but evidence showed that he also embellished his influence over City Hall.

Rechnitz acknowledged doctoring an email that he forwarded to a friend, pretending to threaten the mayor with a “PR disaster” if de Blasio did not get give him better treatment.

“Zowie! You’ve got big ones,” the hoodwinked friend replied.

The cooperation agreement that Rechnitz signed with the government shields him from prosecution for much more than corruption: He also avoids charges of participating in a Ponzi scheme, defrauding a health insurance provider, and perjuring himself on government to land gun license and a certified chaplain with the Westchester Police Department.

Pretending to be a religious leader helped him snag better parking, he explained.

Padding his resume at every turn, Rechnitz admitted to hoping to win the admiration of his community before copping to charges that made him a felon.

“It was like a macher,” Rechnitz said, using the Yiddish word for big shot. “An important person. Silly.”

With the government reaching the end of its case, Judge Carter predicted that closing summations will begin on Tuesday.

Categories / Criminal, Trials

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.