If you think that opening a Hip-Hop Museum in The Bronx is a foolish idea, I have some good news and bad news for you. The good news is that if history is any guide, this project will never come to fruition. The bad news is that the taxpayers of the City of New York can kiss the $1.5 million allocated so far good-bye.
The moving force behind this project is City Councilman Larry Seabrook. Mr. Seabrook has been down this path before, advocating for grandiose government-funded schemes that never seem to get off the ground. More than a decade ago, one of these projects, a proposed youth center in his north Bronx district, received funds from both the state and the city, but never opened, leading to newspaper headlines and a federal investigation. Incredibly, the group to which the city is awarding the money for the Hip-Hop Museum, the North East Bronx Redevelopment Corporation is the same group that was under investigation with Mr. Seabrook. This appears to me to be déjà vu all over again, a perfect example of how in government, things appear to change but always seem to remain the same.
The saga of the phantom youth center takes us back to the early 1990s when Mr. Seabrook was at the height of his political power. He had been elected to the state Assembly in 1984, defeating incumbent Vincent Marchiselli, a reflection of the changing demographics of the district. In the Assembly, Mr. Seabrook developed a reputation as an absentee legislator, compiling the worst attendance record in that body, but nonetheless became the reigning champion of winning government reimbursement for personal expenses he incurred performing the legislative duties he was absent for.
Mr. Seabrook was more involved with tending the political gardens back home in the Bronx than worrying about the operation of state government. He quickly became the borough's most adept black political operative, managing to challenge the party organization to install an ally of his, William Martin, as a State Supreme Court Judge, at that time the youngest ever.
Mr. Martin's promising judicial career quickly came to an abrupt end when he was indicted and later convicted of drug use and tax evasion. But this scandal did not seem to tarnish Mr. Martin's patron. In 1991 Mr. Seabrook engineered the election of Lawrence Warden as City Councilman and was acknowledged as the key black Democratic power broker in the Bronx, winning kudos from leaders such as the Reverend Al Sharpton.
Messrs. Seabrook and Warden were soon able to secure funding for a youth center from both the state and city, funneled through the North East Bronx Redevelopment Corporation that they apparently controlled. But the Daily News discovered that the youth program was somewhat more helpful to the Seabrook political machine than the area's troubled teens.
On April 16, 1995, the News reported "Former program directors Merrick Dammar and Len Jones told The News that except for six bus trips with kids supplied by local schools, NEBRC had no activities for youth.
"Instead, they said, time was spent on political activities for Seabrook's 1994 Assembly campaign."
Mr. Dammar alleged that "computers bought for the program were brought to Seabrook's political clubhouse on Barnes Ave., and that employees took orders from Seabrook's brother Oliver, a paid consultant."
Just last week, the New York Post noted that Oliver Seabrook "pocketed 92 percent of every buck that came in" to his brother's 2005 campaign, $44,000 of the $47,717 he took in from contributors. The Seabrook campaign received $71,000 in matching funds from the city to pay the balance of his bills, but it turns out that that list included another $47,250 owed to Oliver Seabrook.
Oliver Seabrook also surfaced in 2003 as an employee of the Florida-based Correctional Services Corporation, which was cited for providing free rides to and from Albany to influence a number of legislators. One of Larry Seabrook's Bronx colleagues, former Assemblywoman Gloria Davis, who was convicted of bribery, was said to have used her position to win contracts for CDC in exchange for this chauffeur service. This is the scandal that led Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green to resign. He later ran successfully to reclaim his seat.
Apparently seven CDC employees contributed to the Seabrook campaign in 2003, as reported by the Sun, for a total of $1,500. With a four-to-one match of public funds, the CDC-related contributions could be worth as much as $7,500, helping to fund their co-worker Oliver Seabrook's moonlighting to run his brother's campaign.
The 1995 federal probe resulted in no indictments, but did result in a blistering audit of the North East Bronx Redevelopment Corporation by the State Education Department, from whose budget the youth center funds were drawn. This document, released in October of 1999, covered $260,449 spent by the NEBRC, finding that $49,149 of the funds could not be accounted for, demanding that this money be refunded to the State, and another $140,623 in expenses were "questionable," coming to nearly three-quarters of all the funds they received.
Mr. Seabrook actually was able to win appropriations of $812,500 for the phantom youth center, but the State stopped the flow of cash in 1995 as the NEBRC came under scrutiny. With the bad publicity, the federal probe, the critical audit and, of course, no youth center to show for all of this, is it any wonder that Bronx politicos and community leaders have little faith that Mr. Seabrook and the North East Bronx Redevelopment Corporation will be any more successful with the $1.5 million taxpayers have shelled out for the Hip-Hop Museum?