By Michael Howard Saul
Under a barrage of criticism Thursday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn stood behind her decision to give Councilman Larry Seabrook access to a pool of taxpayer funds that he allegedly abused.
A federal judge declared a mistrial in the corruption case against Seabrook earlier this month after jurors said they could not reach a verdict. The Bronx councilman has pleaded not guilty to charges he directed more than $1 million in taxpayer funds to a network of nonprofit organizations that he controlled. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he intends to retry the case.
Quinn, a potential 2013 mayoral candidate, has been the target of fresh criticism this week for her decision to allow Seabrook access to these funds while he remains under federal indictment. On Thursday, Democratic mayoral hopeful Tom Allon lashed out at Quinn and argued that she failed to properly police Seabrook. The editorial boards of the New York Post and the Daily News also excoriated the speaker.
“She doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of not disciplining her members and continues to enable them to waste our precious taxpayer dollars,” Allon said. “She should cut Larry Seabrook off immediately.”
Jamie McShane, a spokesman for Quinn, denied that the money goes to waste, saying that “funding allocations are subject to approval based on a rigorous vetting process.”
As the Journal reported in June, Seabrook’s funding requests have faced a increased scrutiny because of the federal charges. A Quinn aide noted that Seabrook allocates funds to several well-regarded organizations, such as the Bronx Botanical Gardens and the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged.
Quinn has allowed Seabrook to access these so-called member items — derided by critics as pork — while he remains under indictment for abusing this same pot of taxpayer money. As part of the most recent budget cycle, Seabrook requested nearly $400,000 in taxpayer funds be directed to 13 organizations. These funds are a fraction of the nearly $50 million in member items that the council approved in the city’s $66 billion budget for the current fiscal year.
There has been no evidence that any of the funds Seabrook directed to be spent since the indictment are fraudulent, and there’s no evidence that he has an improper connection to any of the groups to which he has directed funds. Seabrook has remained an active voting member of the council while under indictment.
According to the indictment, Seabrook directed at least $2.5 million of council discretionary funds to nonprofits from 2002 through 2009 — including more than $1 million to groups he controlled. Roughly $530,000 ended up in the pockets of Seabrook’s girlfriend and family members, federal officials charged.
The most notorious allegation in the indictment involved a bagel. According to the charges, Seabrook bought a bagel sandwich and soda for $7 at an eatery near City Hall and doctored the receipt to show he spent $177.
In the News editorial, the board argued that Quinn should take away Seabrook’s access to these funds. “But that’s not how Speaker Christine Quinn sees it. She’s going to keep him on the gravy train. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong,” the News’ editorial said. The Post editorial called Quinn “a serial aider-and-abetter of council chiselers and cheats.”
Quinn aides have called these allegations unfair and untrue. In the spring of 2010, Quinn announced a set of reforms for discretionary funding that were supported by the city’s Department of Investigation, which conducted a probe that led to Seabrook’s indictment.
“The allegations in the indictment pre-date the council’s reforms, and none of the alleged actions could have happened since the reforms were implemented,” said McShane, a spokesman for Quinn.
The allegations against Seabrook have already been referred to the council’s Standards and Ethics Committee, which has held the matter in abeyance pending the outcome of the criminal case. If the criminal case ends without a felony conviction, the committee could then take up the allegations and recommend a punishment ranging from a reprimand to expulsion.