In a time of national reckoning over who should be toppled from their pedestal, it is also a time to consider honorable public figures who may have been wronged by a racially biased judicial system. A leading African American official of New York City, Larry Seabrook, was a state senator, a state Assemblyman, and lastly a city councilman.
Seabrook’s service for his Bronx constituents spanned more than 30 years. He rose from Bronx poverty to a perch of civic leadership. However, his distinguished record was obliterated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Prosecution by that office resulted in a fraud conviction for Seabrook.
But like so many other African Americans pummeled by a judicial system in which exoneration for the innocent is an almost insurmountable hurdle, his case should be re-examined.
Following an initial mistrial with a deadlocked jury, Seabrook was convicted in 2012 of several counts of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud related to city council funding of dubiously managed non-profits. Remarkably, while convicted of “fraud,” there was no judicial finding that he personally profited from the crime. Instead, his guilt was determined to be a kind of altruistic fraud to benefit friends and family who were made leaders of these nonprofits.
For this crime, Seabrook was sentenced to federal prison for five years — the government wanted seven to nine — and was released in July 2017. Additionally, he was forced to forfeit from his pension more than $418,000.
Seabrook challenged the forfeiture on appeal, as he did not profit from the offense. However, according to the court ruling: “Where a defendant’s crime is the transfer of money to a third party, the transfer itself may be a basis for substituting assets, even if that money is never received by the defendant.”
Among the allegations contained in the original indictment was that Councilman Seabrook made an effort to recruit a Yankee Stadium boiler contract for a minority business enterprise. The owner of the enterprise contributed to one of Seabrook’s political action funds. However, the criminal counts related to those charges were ultimately rejected.
Seabrook’s public service interest in promoting minority business enterprise was a public policy passion for him. Over his long career, he professed a strong belief that minority entrepreneurial endeavors should benefit from government assistance. Thus, such charges could only have the effect of intimidating all political intervention on behalf of supporting minority businesses enterprise.
The crime for which Seabrook was convicted entailed hiring friends and relatives to operate a nonprofit receiving city funds. The nonprofit’s purpose was to help recruit minorities into the New York Fire Department. In May 2007, the United States filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging the city was engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination in the hiring of entry-level firefighters.
Specifically, it was alleged the city’s use of written examinations had an unlawful disparate impact on Black and Hispanic applicants. To remedy this injustice, Seabrook sought to use a community-based nonprofit to promote minority applicants for the FDNY. He successfully dedicated city council funds for those worthy purposes, a common discretionary exercise for city council members.
It was this effort that resulted in his conviction.
Featured in almost every account of the Seabrook federal case was the infamous “bagel invoice.” Seabrook allegedly marked up a bagel to a preposterous amount in an expense report to the city council. However, like the Yankee Stadium boiler contract, the bagel allegation was without merit and dismissed. While petty in nature, the prosecutorial use of a bagel as a prominent crime was fraught with innuendo. One can still Google “$177 bagel” and get a litany of derisive press accounts, some featuring an image of Larry Seabrook (a Black man) juxtaposed with the quintessential New York bagel.
When the petty becomes symbolic, the narrative is controlling. With the Seabrook bagel, both prosecutors and complicit tabloids in a calculated — and perhaps implicitly racist — way reduced Seabrook to a Bronx street hustler.
Overlooked by the federal attorneys and feral press was Seabrook’s long and distinguished record of public service. During judicial deliberations, there was no consideration of Seabrook’s nationally recognized investigation of discriminatory hiring practices by employment and advertising agencies.
His conviction obliterated from the public’s collective consciousness his war on drugs in his community, including his support for Mayor Dinkins’ “Safe Streets, Safe City” program.
His fights to preserve low-cost tuition at CUNY. His leadership against hate crimes and hate speech that targeted all races, including whites, that all made him a formidable and unique public figure.
For many public figures charged with unlawful conduct who happen to be white and wealthy with powerhouse legal counsels, the appeals process and the judicial system seem to be more lenient, if not forgiving.
Was Seabrook fundamentally a felon who deserved five years in federal prison and forfeiture of a pension for a crime with no personal profit? Should his years of dedicated public service been negated by a false allegation over a bagel? Or was there, in hindsight, a manipulated narrative of racism embedded in the press coverage and in the prosecutorial zealotry to add another politician to the conviction roster of the U.S. Attorney’s office — especially another Black man from the Bronx?
The author is a former legislative staffer to Seabrook when he was in the Assembly, and now lives outside of Washington.