One Police Plaza

Poster Boy for Anti-Semitism

October 30, 2017

Let’s not mince words. Jona Rechnitz is a poster boy for anti-Semitism.

Many in a Manhattan federal courtroom last week — composed largely of Orthodox Jews, judging from the yarmulkes or skullcaps they wore — expressed both anger and disdain toward him. A young man gestured with his middle finger when Rechnitz’s picture appeared on a screen as he testified.

The 34-year-old real estate investor has pleaded guilty to fraud charges. For two days last week he testified as a government witness in the bribery trial of Norman Seabrook, the former head of the corrections union, and his co-defendant, hedge-funder Murray Huberfeld. Rechnitz described in detail how he corrupted Seabrook, the top levels of the NYPD, and arguably Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Rechnitz, a married father of five, wore glasses, a white shirt with no tie, and a yarmulke. He testified that he came from wealth and “privilege,” as he put it, in Los Angeles. His father was rich and prominent. He attended private schools and summer camps.

What was his goal in life? Money and “status,” he said. To be a “macher” — a Yiddish word meaning a big shot — “in the Orthodox Jewish community.”

How did he do it? First, he used his father’s and his in-laws’ wealth and connections. “I built relationships with important people,” he testified.

In New York, he befriended Jeremy Reichberg, a Hasidic man from Borough Park, whose business card read “NYPD liaison” and who described himself as a “fix it guy.” Rechnitz and Reichberg have been accused of bribing police officials with tens of thousands of dollars in meals, trips, gifts, and prostitutes.

An NYPD chief and an inspector as well as cops from the Pistol Licensing Division have been indicted. Seven other chiefs and inspectors have retired. Another inspector, who commanded the Highway Division and who apparently arranged with the Port Authority Police to close down the Lincoln Tunnel for a private escort for Rechnitz, committed suicide after reportedly having been questioned by the FBI.

Reichberg introduced Rechnitz to NYPD Deputy Chief Michael Harrington, who has been indicted, albeit on what appears to be a spurious charge. Harrington introduced Rechnitz to his boss, Chief of Department Philip Banks. Banks was investigated, never questioned, and not indicted. Banks introduced Rechnitz to Seabrook, who was indicted for allegedly accepting $60,000 in cash from Rechnitz in return for investing $20 million in union funds with hedge-funder Huberfeld, to whom Rechnitz introduced him.

Rechnitz testified he hoped to meet other union heads such as Roy Richter, head of the Captains Endowment Association, as well as state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who, he said, Seabrook knew. He also donated and “bundled” over $100,000 to de Blasio’s election campaign. He referred to the mayor as “Bill,” and said he was given his personal phone number and email address. The government presented a picture of the mayor with his arms around Rechnitz and Reichberg. The government also presented an email from Rechnitz to de Blasio with the subject line, “Norman Under Control.” Rechnitz explained he had persuaded Seabrook to stop criticizing de Blasio’s new Corrections Department appointee Joseph Ponte, as the mayor had asked him to do.

The mayor has called Rechnitz “a liar” and said he barely knew him.

Rechnitz conflated his actions with the idea that he was serving the Jewish community. He testified he paid for an Israel trip for Banks because “I didn’t think he had the right view of Israel.”

He persuaded Seabrook to help arrange a $200,000 donation to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles because Wiesenthal was a Nazi hunter and Rechnitz said he believed “passionately” in Wiesenthal’s work. Rechnitz said he himself contributed to the museum so he could become a board member and mingle with other rich and well-connected people. “I wanted to be a player,” he said.

Nor was he above lying. He promised Seabrook he would not tell Reichberg, who he said Seabrook distrusted, about Seabrook’s investment with Huberfeld. But he told Reichberg because, he explained, “He was my partner.”

He also lied about himself. He rented a boat to take Seabrook and others around Lower Manhattan, then told them he owned it. He said he owned a building although he was only its manager. “I like to give the image I am bigger than I am,” he testified.

In arranging Seabrook’s $20-million investment with Huberfeld, Rechnitz said he “waited for the right time” to suggest the investment and a kickback to Seabrook. This occurred, he said, on a trip to the Dominican Republican on a chartered plane he paid for, late at night in Seabrook’s hotel room when Seabrook was in “a highly emotional state.” Seabrook, said Rechnitz, told him he had been raised poor in the Bronx by a single mother, was having trouble with his mortgage, and had difficulty as a black man making a living.

“I felt this was my opening,” Rechnitz testified.

He also testified he did not take a fee for acting as middleman. “On this one, I didn’t need to be paid,” he said, so that Huberfeld “would owe me and do something for me.” Instead, he testified he paid Seabrook $60,000 in cash from his safe, a payment he said Huberfeld authorized.

Huberfeld has denied paying the money. Seabrook denies he received it. A jury will have to decide who is telling the truth.


Copyright © 2017 Leonard Levitt