O’ Mighty Preet! Save Us From Seabrook!
June 10, 2016 (Mimesis Law) – In April, we reported on an ambitious project: the FBI was investigating the NYPD, as well as high-ranking officials like corrections union president Norman Seabrook, for possible corruption.
The FBI became interested in NYC law enforcement after they tapped the phones of two wealthy businessmen, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, during a prior investigation. Allegedly, the feds learned of a number of improper relationships between Rechnitz and Reichberg, Seabrook and top NYPD brass. It was claimed that the businessmen gave them expensive trips, cash and even diamonds; in exchange, they received on-demand police protection.
The businessmen were also prominent donors to, and allies of, Mayor Bill de Blasio. After news of the FBI probe became public, Preet Bharara, Manhattan U.S. Attorney and self-styled anticorruption crusader, made waves by claiming to be hard at work looking at de Blasio for possible involvement. The mayor ultimately reached out to the FBI through his lawyer and offered to help the investigation. The NYPD, for its part, responded by transferring and, in some cases, suspending the cops involved.
That was in April. Now it’s June, and a lot has changed. First and foremost, Rechnitz has turned into the fed’s best friend: as a DoJ press release puts it, Rechnitz is now “a cooperating witness for the Government.”
Flipping Rechnitz was a watershed moment for the DoJ’s case. For the most part, there’s been little concrete fallout from the investigation, but that has now changed. The feds, led by Bharara, are officially on the warpath.
The first official to be prosecuted is Seabrook, who was arrested June 8th and charged with taking bribes. Bharara made a good choice: Seabrook is an extraordinarily unsympathetic figure, the chieftain of a giant public union widely perceived as one of the main impediments to fixing NYC’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Among other people, the corrections union represents the guards on Rikers Island. In 2015, Kalief Browder, a young black man, committed suicide after being sent to Rikers at age sixteen after he was charged with stealing a backpack. He ended up spending three years in the jail, two of which were in solitary confinement, and was starved and beaten by the prison guards until he tried to hang himself with his own bedsheets. He became a cause célèbre for reformers after his case was dismissed and he was released, but the damage he suffered was too much to bear. He committed suicide.
Video of Browder’s abuse at the hands of the guards emerged, and there was an almighty outcry. (Notably, Bharara and the DoJ released a report denouncing conditions at the jail as “inspired by Lord of the Flies.”) But the corrections union, led by Seabrook, a former Rikers’ guard, adamantly opposed any kind of reform. A New York Times op-ed shows how Seabrook went to bat to keep conditions at Rikers – including six-figure salaries for guards – exactly as they were. Seabrook himself receives a $300,000 salary, courtesy of the taxpayer, and spends it extravagantly.
And Seabrook’s alleged crime is unlikely to win him many friends. According to the U.S. Attorney’s criminal complaint, he got involved in an embarrassingly plebeian scheme to sell his access to the union’s pension fund.
According to the DoJ, one day, Seabrook complained to Rechnitz that he wasn’t getting enough personal mileage out of administering union money. Rechnitz recognized this as a problem in need of fixing and introduced him to hedge fund manager Murray Huberfeld. Huberfeld, Rechnitz and Seabrook allegedly worked out a deal wherein Seabrook would invest $20 million from the union’s pension fund with Huberfeldt. In exchange, Seabrook would get 2% of the profits, or an estimated $100-150 thousand. Rechnitz, for his part, would get $60,000 in fraudulent billings from Huberfeld’s firm.
The complaint has a lot more – for instance, it alleges that Seabrook got mad after receiving a first installment of a mere $60,000, even though it was hand-delivered to him by Rechnitz in a Salvatore Ferragamo bag. Comical as details of this sort may be, what they really do is highlight the feds’ narrative. Seabrook bad, DoJ anti-Seabrook, therefore DoJ good. But must we really cheer on the DoJ because for once, they’re making life hard for someone we don’t like?
To put it mildly, there are problems. For instance, to prosecute Seabrook for bribery, the feds charged him with honest services wire fraud. But as Fault Lines’ resident prosecutor, Andrew King, pointed out, “honest services wire fraud” is intrinsically absurd. Ignoring for the moment that the law was successfully challenged on constitutional grounds, the statute as it exists today is nothing more than a way for the government to circumvent the limitations of the federal bribery statute, which only applies to federal officials, to prosecute employees of the states. Federalism? What federalism?
And Bharara’s motives may be less than pure. In the name of fighting corruption, he’s secured some highly dubious convictions against high-profile people. The pageantry and spectacle of prosecuting an elected official may be good for Bharara’s image, but is a prosecutor’s ambition really the standard by which a criminal justice system should operate?
Even those who don’t care if the wrong man wields the wrong power, as long as he uses it to go after the right person, should be worried about the ramifications of letting the feds get away with their hypocrisy. Letting the federal government clean house is tempting because it’s easy: you don’t have to assume responsibility, which could be why the New York Times likes the idea so much.
The problem is that the feds have a very dirty house of their own. Asking these people who so often flagrantly disregard the rule of law to restore it for ourselves is absurd. They have no moral authority to fix the problem, and allowing them to act as if they did will blind us all the more to their failings.
We must resist the temptation to praise the feds for doing to us what they’re unwilling to do for themselves. If we don’t, we’ll have no right to criticize them next time they abuse their power. Seabrook isn’t worth that.