NYC Correction Officers' Union Head Charged In Corruption Probe

Jun 8, 2016
Originally published on June 9, 2016 3:32 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to New York where early today the FBI arrested the head of the labor union that represents guards at Rikers Island jail. The union chief is the most high profile person to be charged in connection with corruption investigations that reach all the way to the police department and City Hall. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Tens of thousands of dollars in a designer bag - prosecutors say that's how Norman Seabrook received the bride that's threatening his two-decade tenure as president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association in New York. At a press conference today, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara laid out what he called a straightforward bribery scheme.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PREET BHARARA: The cooperating witness went to one of Seabrook's favorite luxury goods stores, Ferragamo, and bought a bag and filled it with $60,000 in cash. He then met Seabrook a few blocks from the store, got into his car and handed him the bag of money.

ROSE: Bharara says FBI agents found a Ferragamo bag along with 10 pairs of Ferragamo shoes when they searched Norman Seabrook's house in the Bronx. In exchange for that kickback, prosecutors say Seabrook steered $20 million from the union's pension fund into a hedge fund. The hedge fund manager and Seabrook are both facing fraud charges, which Seabrook's lawyer vows to fight. And Bharara hinted there may be more charges to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BHARARA: We intend also to be as aggressive as ever in exposing corruption wherever we find it. And it is too bad that we seem to find it everywhere we look.

ROSE: In the past year, Bharara has won corruption convictions against two of the most powerful men in the state legislature, and his office isn't the only one that's looking into public corruption in New York City.

JENNIFER RODGERS: It really seems like kind of everybody is getting into the game.

ROSE: Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor who now directs the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia University. She says there are multiple investigations underway into the NYPD and City Hall.

RODGERS: You have the U.S. attorney. The attorney general is investigating. The Manhattan DA. The board of elections. The Joint Committee on Public Ethics has an investigation going.

ROSE: Rodgers says these investigators are looking at a range of allegations on reported gifts to the NYPD, unsavory deals between City Hall and real estate developers, possible campaign finance violations by aides to Mayor Bill de Blasio. But there had been no criminal charges until now, and Rodgers says it's too soon to connect all the dots.

RODGERS: Some of them may end in nothing. Some of them may end in something. I'd be surprised, actually, if the mayor himself gets charged with corruption, but you know, stranger things have happened.

ROSE: No one in the mayor's office has been charged with a crime. But some of his campaign donors are under investigation, and one of them may be cooperating with prosecutors. Real estate developer Jona Rechnitz is reportedly the middleman who brokered the alleged kickback deal between Seabrook and the hedge fund manager. Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about Rechnitz at a press conference today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BILL DE BLASIO: Look; I wish I never met the guy. I never knew him before the fall of 2013 after I won the Democratic primary, where suddenly everyone wanted to be my friend.

ROSE: But de Blasio insisted, as he has before, that his administration has done nothing wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DE BLASIO: I am absolutely comfortable that we have done things properly. When the truth comes out on all these pieces, I feel very, very comfortable that we'll be in a good place.

ROSE: And de Blasio promised that he'll continue pushing for changes inside the city's jails. Just yesterday a jury in the Bronx convicted five corrections officers of beating a former Rikers Island inmate named Jahmal Lightfoot in 2012. Lightfoot hailed that ruling outside the courthouse last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAHMAL LIGHTFOOT: I hope that nobody else has to ever go through this.

ROSE: Reformers hope it's a sign of bigger changes to come at Rikers. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.