The Northeast Bronx Redevelopment Corporation (NEBRC) is a non-profit formed in 1992 “formed to provide educational, recreational and cultural programs for the people of the Northeast Bronx.” The organization sought appropriations from the New York State legislator and was awarded NYS Education Department grants; all in all totaling over 1.4 million dollars between 1993 and 1998. The appropriations were awarded by then State Senator Lawrence Seabrook, and the grants were awarded towards the organization’s goal to built and operate a youth center. Since the organization’s creation in 1992, Seabrook has supported the organization through discretionary funding from the State level and more recently at the City level. While the funding continued to roll in, the operation of the NEBRC has been called into question, issues of conflicts of interest have been raised about the staff of the NEBRC, and now City Councilmember Seabrook has been indicted, tried, and found guilty of corruption and money laundering. And the youth center has yet to be constructed.
An audit conducted by the New York State Education Department of the NEBRC, between 1993 and 1998 found over $45,000 of state funding unaccounted for entirely, 54% of the total funds questionable, and a lack of control over fiscal or administrative activities. “NEBRC has not completed its annual financial statements in a timely manner, or filed its required reports with the IRS in a timely manner, and has not maintained an adequate inventory system.” The audit found that the NEBRC had written a manual to address financial and administrative duties and responsibilities, however they were not following through. Furthermore, “NEBRC has not accomplished the primary purpose of the legislative grants to organize, build, operate and maintain a youth center…NEBRC’s operational plan does not identify a facility where services will be offered.” In five years, the NERBC was poorly managed and did not meet any of the organization’s set goals. However, Seabrook was not deterred in his funding decisions.
Roughly around the same time Seabrook moved from the State Senate to the New York City Council, he helped form another non-profit, the African-American Legal and Civic Hall of Fame, which was formed with the purpose of producing and sustaining the African-American Bronx Unity Parade. In 2009, the New York Times found that “the African-American Bronx Unity Day Parade has left the lightest of footprints. It has never received I.R.S. approval to actually operate as a nonprofit. It has never filed a tax return. And, it seems, it has never run a parade…From July 2004 through March 2007, the city paid more than $156,900 in rent reimbursements for space that the parade organization paid only $40,000 to rent.” And the parade has yet to be produced.
Why would an elected official continue to pour more and more of his district’s own money into ineffective organizations? Why were these groups chosen by Seabrook year after ineffective year? In February of 2010, the Manhattan US Attorney provided the public with an answer in a press release headlined, “Seabrook Also Accused Of Fraudulently Steering More Than $1 Million In New York City Council Discretionary Funds To Non-Profits He Controlled To Benefit His Friends And Family.” The charges against Seabrook included accusations of his funding to these organizations due to his ties with their staff members. The executive director of each of the organizations was Gloria Jones-Grant, a girlfriend of Seabrook’s. The organizations have also paid over $600,000 in consulting fees to Seabrook’s brother, sisters, nephews, and even a $750 consulting fee to Seabrook’s 16 year old grand-daughter. There is even a record of a lunch Seabrook put on the books for $170 dollars. The contents of the lunch? A bagel and cream cheese.
On the one hand, family members have employed one another in the past with tremendous results; on another hand the rules in place at the time of his accused actions permitted his behavior; on yet another hand, as long as someone earns a salary that Seabrook feels is insignificant enough then their qualifications should not come into question, even if the results of that person’s work have proven insufficient time and time again. In none of Seabrook’s defenses does he answer questions about the organizations’ failures, or the failures mentioned in either the 1999 or 2006 audits.
More than anything I wish I could have been in the room when Larry Seabrook had the conversation with his girlfriend, Gloria.
Larry: Ok baby, I’m going to make all your dreams come true. As long as your dreams involve lying to the New York legislature and syphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the electorate.
Gloria: Oh Larry, you make me so hot.
Larry: Good, because I’m going to have an assorted affair with you while keeping you on staff so you can stow away money for me and the rest of my family also, and when push comes to shove, I’ll just throw you under the bus.
Gloria: That’s fine, I still love you. I’ll stand by you and lie for you and we’ll get through this!
Larry: Sure thing, I’m definitely not going to say I never knew you or loved you in courts or on TV and told you to do anything and that I’m ashamed to have known such a careless and insufferable woman. Under oath. And you’ll definitely not get screwed of all your potential for future employment or the chance to live a normal life ever again.
Gloria: Let’s make out.
I mean, I wasn’t there, but I imagine it was something like that.
There were failures on nearly every level of potentially accountable people and entities. The staffers who worked along side Seabrook’s family in all three organizations and did not raise any issues until compelled by a subpoena. The Speaker of the Council Christine Quinn for continuously approving a discretionary budget for Seabrook without a finer investigation into his allocations. The voters for voting in Seabrook for a third term to the City Council, after he had already been under investigation twice before. The lack of connection made between the State legislature and the City legislature, allowing for two independent audits to come to the same conclusion seven years apart from one another and funding continued after both became public. Whatever Seabrook’s incentive has been, be it nepotism, sheer greed, or obtaining political points in his community, until 2010 there was little to no disincentive enforced.
Non-profit organizations themselves are responsible for creating a culture of reporting internal cases, but on a larger scale the legislature is responsible for creating a similar culture among the citizens of New York. That culture could be altered by Speaker Quinn; she had the opportunity to not approve Seabrook for a further $350,000 of discretionary funding for the coming fiscal cycle, while he is under investigation and on trial. However, Quinn has stood firm in her decision to allow him the money. In her defense, Quinn said, “We no longer have an honor system. We have a verification system, where the groups that are seeking funding from the Council are taken through an aggressive vetting process.” Quinn’s decision not to impose discipline on Seabrook provides little disincentive not to follow in Seabrook’s path; rather, it merely allows the opportunity to find other ways around the rules as Seabrook has been doing for decades. A true disincentive and punishment system must be set in place by those with the authority to impose it, while all Quinn has implemented so far is a more red-tape filled honor system.
We can tar and feather Larry Seabrook as many times as we want, but until the systematic issues are addressed all we will be doing is funding the tar and feather industry. New York City’s protection against discretionary funding abuse is only a few steps removed from a bank putting up a sign over its open vault that reads “please do not steal.” Larry Seabrook stole the money, the jewelry, even the sign, while no one seemed to notice or care. Our elected officials were too busy worrying about polling numbers and fundraising efforts to realize the devastating problem they could have been addressing all along. The problem is larger than one district, even larger than one city. Corruption happens all over the world, and sometimes even New York isn’t the first to realize something.