MANHATTAN (CN) — In a smoke-filled room at a tropical paradise, a New York prison union chief poured his heart out to the benefactor who sent him to a seaside resort about his financial woes, his mortgage and the death of his dog.
So began the alleged descent into corruption of former Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook, as narrated during the second day of testimony of the star witness against him on Friday.
“He was highly emotional that evening,” disgraced power broker Jona Rechnitz said of Seabrook.
As told by Rechnitz, Seabrook had been effusively thanking him for footing the bill for a December 2013 vacation in Punta Cana, a popular tourist destination in the Dominican Republic bordering both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
“It’s hard for a black man nowadays to make a living,” Seabrook told his Orthodox Jewish acquaintance, according to the testimony.
At the time, Seabrook raked in $300,000 a year as a powerhouse leader of New York’s largest prison guard union, whose brash and flamboyant style made him feared among the rank-and-file members and the politicians in his crosshairs.
But Seabrook complained that he still had trouble paying his mortgage, let alone affording luxury travel and fine cigars, according to Rechnitz.
“Yes, it’s time Norman Seabrook got paid,” Rechnitz recalled him saying.
Describing a plan where Seabrook would allegedly invest millions of his union’s retirement funds in New York-based hedge fund Platinum Partners in exchange for a cut of the profits, Rechnitz spoke in detail about his business, travels and almost familial relationship with Seabrook.
On top of cash, clothes and adventure, Rechnitz said, he also offered the grieving union chief comfort over the loss of his beloved pet.
“He showed me a tattoo of his dog on his chest,” the witness said Friday.
The government’s star witness, Rechnitz has pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt a dazzling array of Gotham’s top movers and shakers, from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to ex-NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks to the labor leader on trial.
To win leniency, Rechnitz is delivering testimony that prosecutors hope will convict Seabrook and Platinum Partners founder Murray Huberfeld of federal corruption.
“Murray asked me to introduce him to more institutional level investors, more unions, and more connections that he knew that I had,” the witness said.
In the words of Huberfeld’s attorney Henry Mazurek, Rechnitz was a “middleman” and a “matchmaker.”
“He’s a Cupid for businesspeople,” Mazurek told the jury during opening arguments on Tuesday.
Instead of using proverbial bow and arrows, Rechnitz's testimony showed him baiting Gotham’s powerful with luxury objects of their lust.
Aside from the Dominican Republic, Rechnitz said he also took Seabrook, ex-NYPD Chief Banks and diamond merchant Jeremy Reichberg on a Holy Land junket to Israel in March 2014, with stops at the Temple Mount, the Dead Sea, and the Western Wall.
It was a fateful five-night trip for the men, who are all now under federal indictment for corruption.
Video footage presented to the jury showed Seabrook, Reichberg and Banks during happier times at Jerusalem’s Angelica Restaurant.
After taking a sip of wine, Seabrook looks into the camera before slurring: “This evening that brings me here means more to me than words could ever describe.”
Rechnitz said that the dapper union leader also expressed his appreciation for crocodile-leather shoes from Salvatore Ferragamo that cost him several thousands of dollars.
Before finishing testimony Friday, Rechnitz also described buying a pricy bag from the same Italian designer that he said he stuffed with $60,000 stashed in his personal safe.
On Monday, he is expected to testify that he handed this bribe to Seabrook at a Midtown restaurant.
In a parallel criminal case, Rechnitz will also be a key witness against top NYPD officials, previewing that testimony Friday with a tale about a mile-high dalliance between ex-Inspector James Grant and a prostitute in a private jet to Las Vegas for Super Bowl XLVII.
“At one point in the flight, I saw that the cops were not fully clothed in the back of the plane with the prostitute,” he said.
Insisting that he did not join them, Rechnitz claimed, “I didn’t want them to be embarrassed in front of me, and so I went back to sleep.”
Stripped of his gun and badge last year, Grant has pleaded not guilty.
Previewing his expected cross-examination of Rechnitz, Seabrook’s attorney Paul Shechtman called the witness a “proverbial liar” earlier this week.
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