Star federal corruption witness Jona Rechnitz matter of factly implicated New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a half-dozen former NYPD officials and the Westchester County executive in a seamy series of money-for-favors deals during first public testimony Thursday in Manhattan.
Appearing at the bribery trial of former city jail-guards union boss Norman Seabrook, Rechnitz said that after he raised $100,000 in 2013 for de Blasio he became a phone and email buddy with the mayor-to-be, and then had an open line to a top City Hall aide after de Blasio won.
“Whenever we would call him for access or a favor, we were getting the response we expected and the results we were expecting,” Rechnitz told a prosecutor, rattling off five different cases where he sought help or intervention from City Hall.
Rechnitz, 34, a wealthy Los Angeles real estate investor’s son who said he decided connections with important people were the way to rise to the top and make it “on my own” in New York, became the focus of multiple corruption probes last year and has also been linked to two Ponzi schemes.
In the Seabrook case, prosecutors called him to testify that he delivered a $60,000 payoff to get the correction officers’ union head to steer $20 million in pension money to a hedge fund founded by co-defendant Murray Huberfeld, but on Thursday that testimony took a backseat to Rechnitz’s riveting hourlong narrative of his wheeling and dealing.
The father of five described how he and partner Jeremy Reichberg — who has pleaded not guilty in a case alleging payoffs to two police officials — began donating to NYPD causes like the departmental football team, buying dinners and giving holiday gifts to top cops to ingratiate themselves and get the capacity to call in favors for real estate clients.
“I thought this would be an awesome tool,” said Rechnitz, dressed in a dark suit and testifying in a low voice. “People like access to things they don’t normally get. . . . If I was the guy they have to go through, that built a certain status and star power for me.”
Rechnitz said he became “friends” with former Chief Phil Banks and six other NYPD brass — including two ex-police officials charged with Reichberg — and arranged favors ranging from an escort through a private lane at the Lincoln Tunnel for a visiting real estate bigwig to helping friends avoid jury duty, fix tickets and get funeral escorts.
The next target was City Hall.
“We had the police going for us and we decided to get the politicians too,” Rechnitz said. Prosecutor Martin Bell asked how he hoped to cash in.
“My mind was limitless,” Rechnitz answered. “Jeremy told me in the days of Giuliani people made a fortune . . . I figured maybe I’ll buy an office building, and I’ll get the City as a tenant.”
Fernando Mateo, a well-connected taxi drivers’ advocate, set up a meeting for them with de Blasio fundraiser Ross Offinger, Rechnitz said, and he and Reichberg agreed to bundle cash but said when they sought help “we want action.”
De Blasio, he said, later visited at his office, passed along his personal cell number and email address, and told him “if there was anything I need, always keep in touch.” He said the two began talking once a week on various matters, and he was named to the de Blasio inaugural committee.
In City Hall, Rechnitz testified, Offinger became his contact on matters ranging from inspection violations at a property Rechnitz owned to delaying the closure of a private school his wife’s family was interested in, getting a friend a committee appointment and getting help on a friend’s water bill.
“He would call me when they needed money,” he told the jury. “I would call whenever I had an issue.”
Rechnitz didn’t specify what help was provided in each case, and federal prosecutors never charged de Blasio or Offinger with wrongdoing. They cited the lack of evidence of personal profit, and changes in federal laws on corruption.
A lawyer for Offinger, now a fundraising consultant for de Blasio’s campaign, said his client acted “legally and appropriately. A de Blasio spokesman dismissed the testimony as old news and said, “The administration has never and will never make government decisions based on campaign contributions.”
Rechnitz also testified that he raised $15,000 for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, and paid about $5,000 of the $7,000 cost of a Rolex Astorino wanted. For his part, Rechnitz said, Astorino arranged for he and Reichberg to become Westchester police chaplains, providing a credential that could be handy if they were ever stopped.
“We didn’t have to do anything,” Rechnitz testified.
A campaign spokesman for Astorino, who is running for re-election, called the accusations “total contrived nonsense.” Rechnitz’s testimony resumes on Friday.