Former Benton Harbor superintendent takes stand in trial

Published: Dec. 13, 2017 at 8:17 PM EST
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Dr. Leonard Seawood appeared before the jury on Wednesday, maintaining he never intended to defraud or cheat his hometown school district. Seawood faces charges of embezzlement and obtaining money through false pretenses. Prosecutors allege the former Benton Harbor Area Schools superintendent stole more than $46,000 in the form of vacation payout money between 2012 and 2015.

The defense depicted Seawood as a well-educated family man hearkened to Benton Harbor in 2010 to rehabilitate a cash-strapped school system. Seawood testified he had carefully read through his contract and was familiar with the “sell back” provision (In lieu of taking vacation, Seawood could have five of his 25 vacation days paid out every year).

In June 2012, Seawood described being contacted by the human resources department of the district. The HR administrator gave him a form indicating he accumulated 50 vacation days over his first two years. It was under both of their understanding he would lose the days within a week, as he was about to accumulate another 25 days in his vacation bank for the contract year.

Seawood told defense attorney Heath Lynch he scheduled vacation time during his second year at Benton Harbor Area Schools, but work priorities prevented him from taking a vacation.

After learning about his 50 days of accumulated vacation, Seawood said he took a form he obtained from HR to the school board president and treasurer, requesting to be repaid for the unused days.

Lynch peppered Seawood with a series of questions: “Were you trying to cheat the school district?”

“Absolutely not,” replied Seawood.

“Were you trying to defraud the school district?” asked Lynch.

“Absolutely not,” repeated Seawood.

“Did you take money or property that didn’t belong to you?” questioned Lynch.

“Absolutely not,” said Seawood.

Seawood subsequently confirmed he nor any family member was struggling financially at the time of his sell back request. He also did not make a major purchase.

The defense probed Seawood’s $60,000 investment in Lark’s Bar-B-Que, in which he owned one-quarter of the restaurant. He told his attorney he took out three bank loans and could not recall any vacation sell back money funding the business venture.

On cross-examination, Seawood told the state’s attorney, Amy Byrd, he believed he only could have 25 vacation days banked at a time.

“Well, you must have been shocked when you saw a form with 50 days,” remarked Byrd.

In all, Seawood confirmed he requested seven vacation sellbacks.

Other witnesses for the defense included a former human resources clerk for the district and Seawood’s business partner in the Lark’s restaurant.

Earlier in the day, the prosecution rested after calling four additional witnesses, including Sharon James, the former president of the Benton Harbor school board.

In April of 2015, she testified Seawood approached her to sign a form. James was under the impression it was a vacation request – not Seawood asking permission to “sell back” unused vacation days.

His former secretary, Marion Edwards, also took the stand, saying she rarely saw Seawood take a vacation. The defense is arguing the Benton Harbor school board did not allow Seawood to take a vacation for his first two years in the district.

On Thursday, the prosecution and defense will deliver closing arguments before the jury takes the case.