MANHATTAN (CN) — A disgraced power broker tapped as the star witness in the federal corruption trial of former union chief Norman Seabrook boasted on the stand Thursday about his influence over New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Jona Rechnitz claimed to have both de Blasio’s ear and executive actions after maxing out on $4,950 in personal donations between him and his wife, and bundling $100,000 in total to de Blasio’s campaign.
“I was giving money to the mayor of New York in exchange for favors,” said Rechnitz, who is testifying as part of a guilty plea in which he admitted to trying to snare prominent politicians and police brass, like de Blasio and Seabrook, into his web of corruption.
De Blasio must wait until November to learn he will get another four years in office, but prosecutors removed one obstacle to his re-election hopes in March by ending a year-long investigation without charges.
Stopping short of giving the mayor a clean bill of health, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said de Blasio had appeared to violate the “intent and spirit” of state campaign-finance laws. Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim meanwhile attributed the decision to the difficulty of proving criminal intent.
Rechnitz muddied the ethical waters further on Thursday in telling jurors of his arrangement with de Blasio’s top fundraiser, Ross Offinger.
"We're going to become significant contributors, but we want access,” Rechnitz said he told the fundraiser. “And when we call, we want answers. When we reach out for things, we want them to get done. It was very important and specifically stated at that meeting.”
Both parties fulfilled their ends of the bargain, Rechnitz testified.
“I was the yes man,” he said. “I always gave money, as long as I was seeing him produce results.”
De Blasio's office meanwhile appeared unruffled by the testimony.
“These are nothing but reheated, repackaged accusations that have been extensively reviewed and passed on by authorities at multiple levels,” the mayor's spokesman Eric Phillips said in an email. “The administration has never and will never make government decisions based on campaign contributions.”
New Yorkers elected de Blasio four years ago on similar promises. The Democrat's campaign spurned pay-to-play politics, which he said had brought about a Dickensian “Tale of Two Cities.”
On the stand this afternoon, however, Rechnitz depicted the mayor as a driver of this unequal treatment.
As a major donor, Rechnitz testified that he called de Blasio's personal cellphone every week to discuss policy and favors.
“He took my calls,” Rechnitz said. “I mean, we were friends.”
After de Blasio won the election, Rechnitz said he landed a spot on the mayor’s inauguration committee. He also described help from Offinger in delaying a school closure for his wife’s cousin and attempting to erase Airbnb-related charges on his properties.
Rechnitz did not convey whether either effort was successful.
"Whenever we’d call him for access or a favor, we were getting the response that we expected and the results we were expecting,” he said.
In a little more than an hour on the stand, Rechnitz barely mentioned the two men on trial: former chief of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association Norman Seabrook and Platinum Partners founder Murray Huberfeld.
Seabrook is charged with steering millions from his union’s retirement funds to Huberfeld’s hedge fund in exchange for a $60,000 in cash, travel to the Dominican Republic, luxury shoes and bags, and other kickbacks.
After calling Rechnitz to the stand, Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell began leading the star witness through his machinations during the 2013 election cycle.
“My mind was limitless: Jeremy [Reichberg] told me in the days of Giuliani, people made a fortune,” Rechnitz testified. “I was focused on making money, getting my name out there, becoming a big player in town. So I figured maybe I'll buy an office building, and I’ll get the city as a tenant. Maybe I'll need to get special permits to make residential developments.”
Reichberg is a diamond merchant who also served as the NYPD’s community liaison in Borough Park. He is awaiting trial on charges that he obtained gun licenses for a neighborhood watch group in the Hasidic enclave by bribing ex-NYPD Inspector James Grant and three other officers.
One fixture in the Reichberg case is Lev Leviev, a billionaire business associate of Rechnitz’s who serves as chairman of Africa-Israel Investment.
Rechnitz testified that he and Reichberg touched base when protesters were hounding the head of that company’s subsidiary — Rotem Rosen of Africa-Israel USA — in front of his store.
In exchange for quashing the demonstration, Reichberg allegedly asked Rechnitz for a donation to the NYPD’s football team.
“I did,” Rechnitz testified. “I think it was $25,000, a huge amount of money, and he said that he would make sure the problem went away.”
Prosecutors say Reichberg also arranged to shut down a lane of the Lincoln Tunnel for Leviev, nicknamed the “King of Diamonds."
Rechnitz, who is testifying pursuant to a cooperation agreement, told the court that he pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit honest services fraud with the defendants, the NYPD and the mayor. His testimony will continue on Friday morning.
Seabrook and Huberfeld’s defense attorneys dedicated most of their opening remarks earlier this week to attacking Rechnitz’s credibility.
Calling Rechnitz a “pathological liar,” Seabrook’s attorney Paul Shechtman described the witness as a serial exaggerator who inflated his influence on everything from real estate interests to a rented yacht he claimed to own.
“Take a kernel of truth, expand it into a bag of popcorn,” Shechtman quipped on Tuesday.
Despite Rechnitz’s guilty plea, Shectman claims that the witness got off easy on what could have been a much longer list of crimes, including perjuring himself on official documents and involvement in Ponzi schemes.
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.