Trial of ex-NYC union head, Platinum Partners co-founder winds down

File photo: Huberfeld, a longtime associate of Platinum Partners, exits the Manhattan District court house in New York, U.S.
File photo: Murray Huberfeld, a longtime associate of Platinum Partners, exits the Manhattan District court house in New York, U.S., July 22, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

November 7, 2017

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The federal corruption trial of Norman Seabrook, the former head of New York City’s correction officers’ union, and Murray Huberfeld, a co-founder of defunct hedge fund Platinum Partners, came to a close on Tuesday, with arguments focusing on the credibility of prosecutors’ star witness.

That witness, Jona Rechnitz, had told jurors in Manhattan federal court that he handed $60,000 in cash stuffed in a Salvatore Ferragamo bag to Seabrook, who once led the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.

Rechnitz said the December 2014 payment was part of a bribery scheme in which Seabrook steered $20 million of union funds into Platinum, while Huberfeld had Platinum reimburse Rechnitz. Seabrook and Huberfeld are charged with conspiracy and fraud.

Rechnitz, a former real estate executive and one-time fundraiser for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, has pleaded guilty to a corruption charge, and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kan Nawaday conceded that Rechnitz, by his own admission, had not been trustworthy in the past.

“He’s a criminal, and he’s done terrible things,” he said.

However, Nawaday said, Rechnitz’s testimony fit with other evidence, including travel records, tens of thousands of dollars in cash found in Seabrook’s home, and the Ferragamo bag itself, on display in the courtroom.

Seabrook’s lawyer, Paul Shechtman, began his argument with a litany of Rechnitz’s admitted misdeeds, which included seeking a position as police chaplain in Westchester County only in order to gain government privileges and falsifying a gun permit application.

He said Rechnitz was lying to save himself, and that without his testimony, the rest of the evidence was not enough to convict Seabrook.

“Jona is the government’s one real witness in this case,” Shechtman said.

Henry Mazurek, Huberfeld’s lawyer, similarly focused on Rechnitz.

“You cannot convict an innocent man on the basis of that man’s word,” Mazurek said of Rechnitz.

Rechnitz’s most explosive testimony during the trial was not about Seabrook or Huberfeld, but about de Blasio. He told jurors that he routinely called de Blasio on his personal phone to ask for favors and that he obtained “results.”

De Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips at the time dismissed Rechnitz’s testimony as “reheated, repackaged accusations” and noted that state and federal prosecutors closed an investigation into de Blasio’s fundraising practices in March without bringing any charges.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter is expected to instruct the jury on Wednesday. The jurors will then begin deliberating.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)