MANHATTAN (CN) – As New Yorkers headed to the polls on Tuesday, a federal prosecutor here urged jurors to convict the former prison union chief and hedge fund founder tied to a corruption scandal that splashed City Hall.
“Greed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kan Min Nawaday intoned this morning at the start of closing arguments. “That’s what brought Norman Seabrook and Murray Huberfeld together.”
Seabrook, the former president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, stands accused of steering $20 million in his workers’ retirement funds to the hedge fund Platinum Partners in exchange for kickbacks.
“Dues money paid by hard-working corrections officers,” Nawaday said, emphasizing the toll on the workers.
“Dues money, to keep the lights on,” he added.
Huberfeld, who founded the hedge fund, is accused of funneling $60,000 to Seabrook via intermediary to land an institutional investor.
When the men’s trial kicked off two weeks ago, opening arguments shined a spotlight on a crucial piece of evidence — a Salvatore Ferragamo satchel — and a key witness — a disgraced power broker now cooperating with the government.
That witness, Jona Rechnitz, spent six days on the hot seat testifying for the government, describing how he passed off the bag stuffed with cash inside a vehicle near La Brouchette, a pricey kosher steakhouse in Midtown on Dec. 11, 2014.
Jurors saw surveillance video of Rechnitz carting off the handbag, which Seabrook admits to receiving from him as a gift.
Defense attorney Paul Shechtman claimed, however, that rather than cash the bag contained a batch of cigars to celebrate the upcoming Hanukkah holiday.
During trial, Rechnitz testified that he bought Seabrook the purse-size satchel to avoid disappointing the union leader for turning over less bribery money than he was expecting.
Seabrook’s attorney Shechtman ridiculed that explanation today.
“If you believe Jona, he is shorting Norman Seabrook $40,000 to $90,000 … but, ‘you know how I can make him happy? I can buy him a man-purse!” the attorney exclaimed.
“I know I’m shorting him $90,000,” he added, holding up the bag, “but look at that.”
One of his union’s most powerful leaders, the famously fashionable Seabrook has been re-elected several times, but Shachtman quipped that Rechnitz’s present would make rank-and-file correction officer give him the boot.
“You want to guarantee you’re not going to get a seventh term,” the attorney said, slinging the small, shiny bag on his shoulder. “Wear that to the next meeting.”
Rechnitz’s tales of influence peddling extended beyond the men on trial: under the terms of his plea deal, he admitted to attempting to corrupt high-ranking NYPD officers and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Rechnitz maxed out on $4,950 in personal donations for both him and his wife.
He also bundled $100,000 in total to de Blasio’s campaign, and contributed a similar amount to state Democrats at the mayor’s urging.
Stung but legally unscathed by the testimony, the mayor is expected to coast into his second term as closing arguments wrap up Tuesday. A Quinnipiac poll last month found that de Blasio is supported by 61 percent of people likely to go to vote in today’s election.
Schechtman depicted his client Seabrook as one of many New York City leaders hoodwinked by the government’s key witness.
“Many people in this city fell for it,” he said. “People in politics.”
From the start of trial, Shechtman and Huberfeld’s attorney Henry Mazurek have depicted Rechnitz as a pathological liar. Each took turns undermining Rechnitz’s credibility, attacking the witness under grueling cross-examination as a racist con artist.
The final day of Rechnitz’s testimony ended with revelations that the witness wore blackface to a party and called former President Barack Obama a “schvartze,” a Yiddish slur for black people.
Rechnitz claimed not to know that these were racially offensive, but Shechtman mocked the notion that the witness lived a sheltered life.
“He lived in two small towns: Los Angeles and New York City,” the attorney quipped.
Shechtman emphasized that Rechnitz’s shaky word is all that corroborates the allegation of a $60,000 bribe.
Prosecutors noted that Huberfelt cut Rechnitz’s company a check of that amount at trial, but Shechtman unveiled an alternate theory for that transfer on Tuesday: that Rechnitz earned a $100,000 commission for his work snagging the union as a client.
Only $60,000 of that amount went into his company, and the other $40,000 went into assorted Jewish charities at Rechnitz’s request as a tax dodge.
Evidence showed Rechnitz deposited $3,600 to his synagogue, $18,000 to his yeshiva and $18,000 to an Israeli medical research center.
Though slightly less than $40,000, Rechnitz’s donations fall under the Jewish tradition of donating in multiples of 18, a number that in Jewish tradition signifies “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.
But, for Shechtman, Rechnitz violated his religion’s sacred commandment.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness,” Shechtman said.
On rebuttal summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Capone emphasized Rechnitz’s character is not on trial.
“If this were a personality contest, he’d be a loser,” Capone said. “If this were a morality contest, he would not be able to participate.”
Ridiculing the defense strategy as “Make ’em hate Jona,” Capone added that corrupt witnesses in bribery cases are par for the course.
“I’d love to prove this case to you with saints, not sinners,” he said.
During opening arguments, Mazurek described Rechnitz as an inverse of his own client Huberfeld: Both from Orthodox Jewish communities, Huberfeld built his business empire from a kosher fast-food chain, but Rechnitz is a scion of a wealthy real estate mogul from Beverly Hills.
Mazurek used cross-examination to pick apart discrepancies between Rechnitz’s testimony on the stand and his tales to the prosecutors.
One of the claims that defense attorneys relished in undermining was that Rechnitz felt sick and took a nap while chaperoning high-ranking police officers on a private jet to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl.
As Rechnitz slept on the plane, he said NYPD Inspector James Grant and another officer cavorted on board with a prostitute.
The witness protested when Mazurek quoted from the government’s notes that Rechnitz “probably didn’t do anything” but he “wasn’t sure.”
“No, I’m positive that I never said that,” Rechnitz replied.
Scoffing at those denials in his closing, Mazurek offered the jury an imitation of Rechnitz.
“No, I had a stomachache,” he moped. “My eyes closed. I can’t remember if I had sex with a prostitute.’
“That’s not credible,” Mazurek concluded, returning to his normal voice.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter will deliver instructions to the jury before they begin deliberations on Wednesday morning.