NEW YORK (AP) — The evidence at the ongoing corruption trial of New York City Councilman Larry Seabrook includes a mundane $5.55 receipt from McDonald’s for a burger and a medium Sprite. A receipt from Dunkin’ Donuts shows a charge for an unremarkable $2.50.
But the one from a deli near City Hall for a Snapple and a bagel sandwich is harder to digest.
The total: $177.64.
Federal prosecutors say Seabrook submitted the receipt for reimbursement — and that it wasn’t an innocent misprint. Instead, they call it convincing proof of how he doctored expenses and used other tricks to line his pockets and line up jobs for his girlfriend, sister and others close to him.
The 60-year-old councilman “operated his own corrupt, City Council-funded friends and family plan,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in announcing the charges last year.
Seabrook has company: In the past two years, a steady parade of local and state lawmakers and their staffers has been accused in federal courthouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn of abusing their authority for personal gain.
One investigation focused on accusations that a hospital executive sought to bribe three legislators for statehouse favors in Albany. The executive and one of the lawmakers were convicted this year; another assemblyman was acquitted and third is awaiting trial.
Other cases, including Seabrook’s, involve allegations that taxpayer money and private donations meant for nonprofit groups offering programs for needy constituents morphed into slush funds for politicians’ personal expenses.
A former state senator from the Bronx, Efrain Gonzalez Jr., pleaded guilty last year to charges he used $500,000 in donations collected for a youth program for a luxury apartment in the Dominican Republic, Yankees tickets and steak dinners. The Manhattan judge who sentenced Gonzalez to seven years in prison scolded him for treating “the bank accounts of these charities as if they belonged to him.”
A state senator from the Bronx, Pedro Espada, and his son are awaiting trial in Brooklyn on charges they embezzled more than $500,000 from a federally funded medical clinic. Their alleged spending spree included Broadway shows, a down payment on a Bentley and a pony for a birthday party.
At the City Council level, authorities say elected officials have succumbed to the temptations of so-called discretionary funds, millions of dollars allocated in the past decade for nonprofits around the city. Council members receive a cut of the funds each year and are supposed to dole them out to reputable community groups of their choice.
Hiram Monserrate, a former city councilman from Queens better known for a domestic violence scandal resulting a misdemeanor assault conviction in 2009, allegedly funneled more than $100,000 in discretionary funds to finance a failed bid in 2006 for state Senate.
Monserrate has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Another former councilman and two council staffers have been convicted in similar schemes.
In response to the scandal, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has sought to reform the budget process to introduce more oversight of discretionary funds. The measures include creating an online database that tracks how the money is allocated, stiffer disclosure requirements for nonprofits seeking funds and limits on the number of consultants that can be hired for community projects.
Seabrook, whose trial resumes next week, remains a Democratic Party stalwart in the Bronx. His city website lauds him as the first black candidate to have held office on the council, the state Assembly and state Senate. It also touts him as a vigilant foe of discriminatory hiring practices and drug dealers.
“He has a history of helping,” his attorney, Anthony Rico, said in opening statements at his trial. “He has a history of giving. He has a history of commitment to people in the Bronx.”
But prosecutors claim the councilman also was committed to secretly serving his own needs. Between 2002 and 2009, they say, he sought to steer $2.5 million in taxpayer money to sketchy nonprofits under his control.
The councilman paid more than more than $500,000 in salary and “consulting” fees over the seven-year span to his girlfriend, his brother, two sisters and his nephews, among others, prosecutor Steve Lee told jurors. The girlfriend took a salary even though “she had little grasp of the actual work the nonprofits were supposed to be doing,” he added.
The government also alleges that the girlfriend and family members gave thousands of dollars in kickbacks to Seabrook. A paper trail shows that within days after his sister received $10,000 for writing a brief report on efforts to increase racial diversity in the city fire department, she purchased $2,000 in money orders that were deposited in Seabrook’s personal account, authorities said.
The councilman also is charged with soliciting $40,000 in kickbacks from a Bronx businessman after helping him win a contract to install boilers at the new Yankee Stadium. Some of the kickbacks allegedly were laundered through a political club used by Seabrook to cover personal expenses.
One of those expenses was the bagel sandwich — turkey on a cinnamon bagel with lettuce and tomato to be exact.
The government called the owner of the Bits, Bites & Baguettes deli, Robert Garber, to testify that the order was delivered to the “members lounge” at City Hall in 2006.
Shown the receipt, he testified the $155.60 listed as the price of the sandwich surely should have been under $6. The price of the drink, more than $21, made no sense either. The real price should have been about seven bucks.
Somehow, stating the obvious didn’t spare Garber from cross-examination.
“It is absolute clear in your mind that one bagel, there is no way in the world that it would cost over $100?” Seabrook’s lawyer inquired.
“Absolutely clear,” the deli owner responded.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)