By Albert Samaha
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Following his arraignment on 13 counts of fraud last week, Larry B. Seabrook pulled a camel-hair coat over the dapper, three-piece gray suit he had chosen for his arrest. He pushed through the revolving doors of federal court and stepped outside onto Worth Street, where a media throng awaited.
Wearing a pensive frown, he stood behind his able attorney, Murray Richman, who explained to the thicket of cameras and microphones that his client had done no wrong. "I urge you all to read the indictment," the lawyer said. "If you do so, it will show you that no criminal conduct was ever intended."
Seabrook's scowl broke only after a reporter asked why he was at such an unusual loss for words. The City Councilman from the Bronx beamed as if his good works had been singled out for applause. Richman held up a hand: "I have asked him not to talk," he said. "He is following my advice." Seabrook grinned and nodded.
Richman is known in city courtrooms as "Don't Worry Murray" because of his ability to put clients at ease, even those facing multiple felonies. Seabrook has his own nickname: "Cash and Carry Larry." He earned it after touching all available political bases in his northeast Bronx district: Assemblyman, State Senator, and City Councilman, the post he has held since 2001. Back in 2000, he tried for a home run when he challenged veteran Congressman Eliot Engel. He ran and lost on a simple political platform: He was African-American. His opponent was not.
The "Cash and Carry" tag emerged along the way as a tribute to his knack for steering a steady stream of government money into the waiting hands of family and friends. The 66-page indictment unveiled last week bears witness to that talent.
In 2006, the city's Department of Small Business Services—dubbed "City Agency #1" in the charges—ruled that a Bronx nonprofit group that had received $355,000 at Seabrook's direction had fallen "radically short" of its performance goals. How short? The Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation was supposed to have found permanent jobs for 42 needy residents; it had placed just three, each of them with Seabrook's Council office. A program to teach computer literacy to youngsters enlisted 46 students. None graduated. The organization's director? Seabrook's longtime mistress. The job developer? His sister.
After city representatives told Seabrook that his group would be deemed "unsatisfactory," the Councilman only scrambled all the faster. His next chosen target was the pool of funds designated by the Council to redress the city's disgraceful shortfall of minority firefighters. In the fall of 2006, he won another $300,000 for the Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation after he "vouched" for the group with officials at John Jay College for Criminal Justice who were overseeing the effort.
The man who campaigned on a platform of black empowerment gave short shrift to the program's goals. Probers for the city's Department of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's office found that the group's sole effort was to place a few ads and distribute some flyers. The mentoring and training sessions it had pledged to provide for young, would-be recruits were handled by black firefighters who served as volunteers. The volunteers later had to threaten to go to the papers in order to get reimbursed for their own expenses. Seabrook's sister, who was retained as a project consultant, had no such trouble: She received $10,000 for a six-page report "written in large font."
There was much foot-stomping over at the City Council over these outrages after the Seabrook indictment was released. Speaker Christine Quinn pointed out that the grants cited in the charges would never pass muster with her office since new reforms were put in place in the spring of 2008 after a scandal erupted over Council slush-fund spending.
But Larry Seabrook's reputation as a serial offender with public money was hardly a secret long before those grants sailed through the approval process. Anyone taking a few minutes to punch a few computer keys would have discovered a raft of news stories dating to the 1990s detailing his abuses.
A federal grand jury in 1995 probed the very same organization—Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation—for spending hundreds of thousands of government dollars on phantom youth programs. The money had been routed to the group by then-Assemblyman Seabrook and his ally on the Council, Larry Warden. Two former directors of the program confessed to the Daily News that there had been all of six bus trips for local kids and nothing else. Computers purchased for the organization had been carted over to Seabrook's political clubhouse, where program directors were enlisted in the Assemblyman's re-election campaign.
No indictments resulted from that probe, but City Hall stopped payments to the group and reportedly launched its own investigation. That, too, quietly faded away.
A few more computer keystrokes would have brought up a devastating 1999 audit by the State Education Department that found that $420,000 in state funds had been consumed by the Bronx group with nothing to show for it. Nearly $100,000 went for rent at a facility where no services were provided; $50,000 in expenses could not be documented at all. The group filed none of its required financial reports to the state or the IRS. Auditors noted that organization officials "generally agreed" with the findings.
Given this very public record, Larry Seabrook's most reasonable response to the criminal charges is a political version of the "Twinkie Defense." He's not the real culprit here. Instead, it's the enablers who continued to feed his habit no matter how many times he blew the family rent money at the racetrack. Allowing the legislator to "vouch for" an organization's competence to receive public funds was about as defensible as offering a drink to an AA member struggling to stay sober.
In June 2008, the Voice published an article about many of the same abuses described in the indictment, along with the Councilman's history as a recidivist con man. It was called: "Catch Larry Seabrook If You Can." At the time, Seabrook insisted that he had his habit under control. "I know what line I have to walk," he said. "I know where the line is, and I won't cross over it."
But even when he crossed the line, he could always rely on his enablers to look the other way. When Mike Bloomberg was up for re-election in 2005, he traveled to Seabrook's Co-op City home base to proudly accept the Councilman's endorsement as a local crowd roared with support. This was especially valuable to the mayor since the backing came from a Democrat residing in the backyard of his opponent that year, Freddy Ferrer.
In October 2008, long after the slush-fund scandal had erupted and the latest round of misspending was laid bare, Seabrook was one of the crucial votes courted by Bloomberg and Quinn to win the term-limits extension they sought. Seabrook was especially important because he was one of seven members of the Council's Government Operations Committee and had pledged his support for the resolution. He was due at City Hall for the 10 a.m. vote. He never made it.
He showed up a couple of hours later. Where had he been? "I had something at home I had to deal with," he told us. "They were installing windows in my apartment." He then went upstairs to the chambers for the vote by the full Council. Seabrook is also a reverend, and it was his day to provide the opening invocation for the session. He stood before the crowd and bowed his head: "We ask for guidance," he intoned.