MANHATTAN (CN) — The corruption trial of the man who once headed the union of New York prison guards kicked off Monday with two tales of a Salvatore Ferragamo satchel: empty in one version, and stuffed with a $60,000 cash bribe in the other.
“This man is Norman Seabrook, a powerful union leader, who was willing to betray his workers who trusted him and endangered their retirement funds for a bag of cash,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell said.
The target of Bell’s accusatory finger, Seabrook, sat at the defense table in a black suit. A dotted purple handkerchief, a red-and-yellow tie, and a light salmon shirt hinted at the leader’s innate flamboyance, toned down for his first day before a federal jury.
Seabrook had not been a typical leader of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association — prosecutor Bell noted that his “outspoken and brash” manner made Seabrook an outsized force among corrections officers.
“Within the union, that same style made him feared, and gave him immense power,” Bell said.
For defense attorney Paul Shechtman, that same style made Seabrook “one of the most effective labor leaders in the history of this city.”
That legacy has been in jeopardy since Seabrook’s arrest last year. Prosecutors accuse the 57-year-old Bronx man of steering $20 million in the retirement funds of tens of thousands of guards to the New York-based hedge fund Platinum Partners.
Murray Huberfeld, who founded that firm, faces his own set of charges.
“This case is about how greed, pure greed, brought these men together,” Bell said of the defendants.
For Bell, the story of corruption was one out of Hollywood, down to the props used at a nighttime scene at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant.
“In this case, it actually happened,” the prosecutor said. “The bags, the bills, the handoff, they were all real.”
Seabrook and Huberfeld call the accusation a lie by Jona Rechnitz, a former power broker at Platinum Partners who has been cooperating with the government.
Rechnitz is expected to take the stand later this week, and both defense attorneys took turns attacking his credibility this morning.
“At bottom, this is a one-witness case, and the witness is Jona Rechnitz,” Seabrook’s attorney Paul Shechtman said.
It is Rechnitz who claims to have turned over the satchel filled with cash to Seabrook on Dec. 11, 2014, securing a new institutional client to steadily invest millions with his boss Huberfeld.
Prosecutors note that Rechnitz’s tale is corroborated by surveillance video, license plate readers of Seabrook’s car driving over the Triborough Bridge to Manhattan and phone call records between the two men.
As for the bag, Shechtman says proof of its contents requires more than Rechnitz’s word.
Calling Rechnitz a “pathological liar,” Shechtman described the handoff as one of a series of tall tales from a witness who has also boasted about phantom real-estate interests and who claimed to own a rented yacht.
“Take a kernel of truth, expand it into a bag of popcorn,” Shechtman said.
Huberfeld’s attorney Henry Mazurek said that Rechnitz’s tales took him far.
Rechnitz sat next to legendary Hollywood director Spike Lee at New York Knicks games, got ushered around town by NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks, and he could count on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to answer when he called the mayor’s personal cellphone, Mazurek told jurors.
“He’s a middleman, a matchmaker,” Mazurek said. “He’s a Cupid for businesspeople.”
Apart from his rumored donations to the mayor’s political campaign, there is no allegation imputing Rechnitz’s boldfaced associates with any wrongdoing.
Rechnitz’s cooperation with the government could spell leniency on a list of alleged crimes: He has been accused of participating in multiple Ponzi schemes, perjuring himself on a gun-license application, and bribing numerous government officials.
In another corruption case, Rechnitz claimed to have finagled his NYPD connections to close a lane of the Lincoln Tunnel so that his wealthy friends could enter the city from their private jets without traffic.
Huberfeld and Rechnitz trace their roots to a Orthodox Jewish community of Holocaust survivors in Poland, but defense attorney Mazurek said that Huberfeld’s blue-collar upbringing sets him apart from his accuser.
Depicting Rechnitz as the spoiled scion of a wealthy family in Beverly Hills, California, Mazurek said that his client Huberfeld built his billion-dollar hedge fund from a humble fast-food chain of kosher restaurants in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
The 56-year-old Huberfeld may now hang his hat in Manhattan, but a federal wiretap captured his Brooklyn twang.
“Get more gelt into my fund,” the hedge fund honcho told Rechnitz in one recording, using the Yiddish word for Hanukkah money but synonymous now with gold-wrapped chocolate coins.
Prosecutors depict the tape as Huberfeld goading their witness into bribery, but Mazurek said the recordings only show the “type-A personality” of a “pushy guy from Brooklyn.”
Current COBA president Elias Husamudeen will be testifying as the government’s first witness Tuesday afternoon, and Rechnitz will take the stand later in the week.