By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
New York's City Council remains atremble over the ongoing investigation into funding abuses, an inquiry said to involve as many as half of the council's members. But some people know how to take these things in stride. Take Bronx Councilman Larry Seabrook, who never breaks a sweat no matter how many times his name pops up alongside words like "slush fund" and "probe." Investigation-wise, this is the second time around for Seabrook. Or is it the third?
The one that may not count was a little look-see by the Department of Investigation back in 1986, when Seabrook was just starting out in politics (he's held the trifecta of local political jobs, having served in the state assembly and senate, as well as the council). The allegation then was that time sheets had been manipulated at a nonprofit group Seabrook headed and whose employees had worked on his campaign. No charges resulted, and it was the first no-harm, no-foul on Seabrook's scorecard.
Things got more serious a few years later when a federal grand jury in Manhattan issued a blizzard of subpoenas concerning a youth group that owed its existence to state grants that the legislator had funneled its way from Albany. What gave that probe teeth, and cause for concern on Seabrook's part, was that two of the group's former directors publicly said that their jobs were largely a sham. Most of their work, the ex-directors claimed, was on behalf of Seabrook's campaigns. Even computers bought for the organization were carted over to Seabrook's political clubhouse, the ex-aides told the Daily News's Zachary Margulis back then.
Seabrook beat that one as well, a victory that merited high fives in the Bronx, where politicians consider indictment a standard occupational hazard.
That run of good luck may be why Larry B. Seabrook, 56, now facing yet another investigation, was still the coolest cat on City Hall's hot steps last week. Bedecked in a dark pinstriped, double-breasted suit, red tie, and gold-medallion cufflinks, the two-term councilman wore a wide grin that never faded even when asked about the latest law-enforcement excavation into his political affairs.
"I think they did an outstanding job," he said of a group called the Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation that he'd nurtured for years with government grants, but which had its funding frozen by city officials in 2006 after they couldn't figure out where the money was going. This is the same group that caused Seabrook grand-jury problems a dozen years ago. Staffed by Seabrook allies, it operated for years out of the same address on White Plains Road where the councilman keeps his district office.
In April 2006, auditors from the city's Department of Small Business Services reported that the then 16-year-old organization had no accounting system, and that many expenditures from the $358,000 in funding that was supposed to be used for workforce training couldn't be tracked for lack of documentation. Part of the problem, the auditors said, was that a secretary assigned to keep the books had neither training nor competence to handle the job.
Almost $100,000 in expenses was disallowed. The agency nixed a $14,500 bill for newsletter-printing expenses after the organization failed to provide copies of said newsletters. A $7,000 report from a Jacksonville, Florida–based consultant was similarly ruled out when no one offered an explanation of what the report would be about.
Agency officials also complained that while the executive director of Northeast Bronx Redevelopment had charged her full $75,000 salary to the workforce-training program, she was unresponsive to repeated requests for information and didn't appear to have reviewed or signed off on reports to the city. Required monthly lists of individuals receiving training and job placement were routinely incomplete and sometimes contradictory, officials said.
City agency officials referred their findings to the city's Department of Investigation. They also presented the matter to Seabrook, the group's sponsor, explaining that Northeast Bronx Redevelopment was being deemed "unsatisfactory." Aides to Seabrook said they would take the issue up with the organization.
But there were no signs of improvement. The goal of the funding was to get unemployed Bronx workers job-ready, but when the city agency tallied the final results, there were decidedly slim pickings: Of 27 people enrolled in commercial-driver training classes (three less than the goal of 30), only 12 were placed in jobs. Of that dozen, none were still employed 90 days later.
The group also conducted training in computer literacy but enrolled only 30 students—just half of its goal of 60. Classes were apparently tough: Only four students completed 80 percent of the training. None received a certificate of completion.
The closest thing to a bright spot in the group's accomplishments was placing four individuals in genuine, full-time employment. But the job candidates had a hook: Three of the placements were hired as assistants to Councilman Seabrook; the fourth was hired for the council's own staff.
Outside City Hall last week, the councilman was asked how he'd come to recruit those aides. "What, right now? I can't, but I'll get back to you on it," he said. Overall, he insisted that Northeast Bronx had done well: "The driver training—that was their mission. They were doing fine until someone changed their rating to unsatisfactory. Now why would they do that?"
On the phone a day later, Seabrook said he was still drawing a blank on the council aides. But when asked why he thought he was once again a subject of law-enforcement inquiry, the councilman was off to the races—or rather the race issue.
"They've been looking at me for 30 years," he said. "But looking at and not substantiating anything doesn't make you a criminal. There's nothing wrong. Why are they looking at me? I'll tell you why: Somebody has criminalized all black elected officials. In American society, any black man that's not looked at, then he's not a black man."
Was that the only reason he was under scrutiny? Seabrook paused. "Maybe it's because I look so damn good," he said.
To be fair, Larry Seabrook has a long history with the Voice. Back in 1986, staff writer William Bastone wrote a series of stories, one of which detailed how Seabrook's brother Oliver had been hired as a consultant for another Seabrook-funded group to edit and publish a newsletter. The problem, the Voice reported, was that the brother lived in Sweden at the time.
Apparently annoyed that a Village-based newspaper was poking around his affairs, Seabrook waved away Bastone and a photographer when they approached him outside his Bronx office. "Now don't you two go and get AIDS," he said by way of good-bye.
He was less cheerful a few weeks later when the pair showed up at his clubhouse on election night. The politician and five cronies broke photographer Marc Asnin's camera and tried to throw Asnin and Bastone down a flight of stairs. No charges were filed in that case either.