MANHATTAN (CN) – For nearly two years of rocky prosecution, ex-prison union boss Norman Seabrook brought a fashion show to federal court. Every New York City tabloid dispatch contained a line about his bespoke suits. Prosecutors made hay of the Salvatore Ferragamo bag that a witness testified to being stuffed with $60,000 in bribe money.
For his final reckoning on Friday, Seabrook received a prison sentence to match his age: a month behind bars for every year of his life.
“My life’s journey may have been interrupted, but it’s not over until God says it’s over,” the 58-year-old proclaimed.
Entirely absent from Seabrook’s courtroom address was any sense of remorse or contrition for the corruption crimes that 12 New Yorkers unanimously convicted him of committing. Deliberations in Seabrook's second prosecution were short, in marked contrast to his first, which ended in a mistrial.
Until his indictment in 2016, Seabrook spent more than two decades as president of the powerful Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, representing 20,000 active and retired correction officers in New York City, including at Rikers Island. The union lost $20 million from their retirement savings after Seabrook invested the money with the risky hedge fund Platinum Partners, led by his co-defendant, Murray Huberfeld.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein described the crime as one motivated in part by his vanity.
“Mr. Seabrook, I believe, was blinded by his sense of his own importance and his desire to benefit himself after benefiting others for so long,” Hellerstein said.
For Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell, the symbol of Seabrook’s style should have been a source of his shame. Authorities found his Ferragamo bag hanging on a doorknob, a detail that Bell found to be a sign that Seabrook’s missing conscience.
“It’s the sort of thing that you put in the closet, in the basement or under the bed,” Bell said.
The bag came as a gift from the government’s star witness Jona Rechnitz, a disgraced power broker who told a jury that he filled it with bribes.
Seabrook still insists that it contained nothing more than cigars.
“I have a cigar in my pocket right now,” the dapper ex-union boss said.
“You can’t smoke them in the courtroom,” the 85-year-old Hellerstein admonished, to laughter from the spectators.
Seabrook was said to have a famously fiery temper to match his smokes, and three of the union members he betrayed delivered testimony at his sentencing depicting him as a tyrant. Celestino Moncolova, shaking with rage and emotion, slammed what he called Seabrook’s “reign of terror.” Eric Deravin labeled him an “arrogant, self-absorbed dictator.”
A third, Tamika Hernandez, used her time at the podium to turn to Seabrook directly and lecture him directly.
“Norman, we trusted you,” Hernandez said, appearing wounded.
“You hurt me,” she continued later. “You hurt many members, and you hurt my family.”
One of the rank-and-file members noted that union dues subsidized Seabrook’s high-powered criminal defense from Paul Shechtman, who said his client was not flashy about his philanthropy.
“How many public figures do good without fanfare?” asked Shechtman, after speaking about his devout Christian client’s little-known support for Brooklyn’s Rehoboth Cathedral.
For his outward piety, Seabrook’s sense of mercy did not find expression in calls for criminal justice reform. His zealous advocacy for prison workers made New York politicians afraid to embrace efforts to constrain guards from using force against inmates, even after multiple violence and rape scandals underlined the need.
Quoting conservative author William Buckley, Jr., Bell described Seabrook as a man, “Standing athwart history, yelling stop.”
After teenage inmates at Rikers assaulted a prison guard in November 2015, Seabrook used the incident to try to block a reform meant to stop the long-term solitary confinement of minors, a practice widely described as torture.
During his speech today, Seabrook boasted about supporting ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ignored calls to close Rikers and fought bitterly against litigation to rein in policies that filled the jails.
Bell did not dispute that Seabrook’s tactics made him effective in pushing his agenda, but the prosecutor added that the fallen boss that these successes bred a sense of entitlement.
“He was owed,” Bell said.
Quoting testimony of how the union boss once talked about himself in the third person, Bell said: “It’s time for Norman Seabrook to get paid.”
The court ordered Seabrook to pay $19 million in restitution, and he will spend more than four years in a prison system shifting toward a path of reform he opposed. His attorney promised to lodge an appeal.
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