Jury begins deliberations in trial of former Benton Harbor schools' superintendent

Published: Dec. 14, 2017 at 8:55 PM EST
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The fate of a former Benton Harbor schools' superintendent rests in the jury, as the closing arguments took place late Thursday morning. Berrien County Assistant Prosecutor Amy Byrd argued Dr. Leonard Seawood was aware of the stipulations of his contract during the three years he reportedly embezzled more than $46,000 in vacation payout money.

“The buck stops at the feet of the defendant. It has to stop,” said Byrd, addressing the jury.

Referencing statements Seawood publicly made during school board meetings, Byrd depicted Seawood as a contradictory character. After asking teachers and other district staff in December 2011 to take a 10 percent pay cut, Seawood vowed to do the same as the district faced a severe financial deficit. Privately, Byrd asserted the superintendent was doing something else.

“He was just using the district as his own personal piggy bank. It was the Bank of the Benton Harbor Area Schools,” she said.

Seawood’s contract provided 25 vacation days a year that could roll over to the following year. He could also “sell back” five unused vacation days per year, receiving the equivalent of an additional week of pay. In late June 2012, Seawood testified he approached separately Anthony Jett and Martha Momany – then the president and treasurer of the Benton Harbor school board – after he received a vacation record form from human resources. It indicated he accumulated 50 vacation days between July 2010 and June 2012.

Seawood told the courtroom on Wednesday that he and the HR administrator assumed he was going to lose the 50 days of vacation, since he would accrue another 25 vacation days in early July 2012. As the prosecution indicated in evidence, Seawood received written approval from Jett and Momany for a 50-day vacation payout, earning nearly $27,000 in extra pay.

“Both Anthony Jett and Martha Momany testified it was not their intention to give him more days (paid out) than his contract provided for,” Byrd presented while inserting claims Seawood doctored the payout request forms.

On the stand, Seawood confirmed he sought seven vacation payouts between 2012 and 2015. During closing arguments Byrd itemized the sell backs, indicating he had four in roughly one year (late June 2012 to July 2013), which violated the one yearly sell back permitted in his contract.

“One person knew the terms of that contract,” said Byrd. “It was his contract.”

Displayed in court, Seawood’s contract forbade individual board members, or administrators, from altering the work agreement.

Defense attorney Heath Lynch countered the claim Seawood stealthily sought to change the terms of his contract.

Addressing the jury, Lynch asserted: “I’m also guessing that not one of you is familiar with every single paragraph of legalese in your employment agreement. In fact, I’ll bet more than one of you has no idea where you can find your employment agreement that you signed as you sit here today.”

In his closing argument, Lynch likened his appeal to the jury to the situation Seawood found himself in when he was filling out vacation payout forms.

“Even though Dr. Seawood clearly knows (the vacation payout) provision is in his contract, he read through it at the time he filled out those sell back forms,” explained Lynch.

Compounding on the statements his colleague, attorney Matthew Borgula, made on Tuesday, Lynch reminded the jury the trial isn’t about whether or not Seawood breached his contract.

“There is no evidence that Dr. Seawood intended to cheat or defraud anybody in this case,” he said.

Speaking to the summer 2012 payout, Lynch reverted to the testimony of Anthony Jett, the former school board president. Lynch described Jett as not having a precise recall of which elements were filled out on the vacation payout form submitted to him by Seawood.

“What he did recall very well, he recalled contacting each and every member of the board after he talked to Dr. Seawood,” told Lynch. “He said to (the board members), ‘Seawood needs to take his vacation time, and he is asking to get paid. And he testified to you every board member was okay with that. Then he came back, and after confirming all that, he signed that form.”

Still, the prosecution pointed to a weakness Seawood exploited in the school board: their supposed lack of knowledge about the nuances of his contract.

“The lies have to stop sometime,” closed Byrd. “The manipulation has to stop some time. There is only one person accountable, one person who benefited, one person who is responsible for this, and that’s the defendant.”

The jury will resume deliberations on Friday morning and must reach a unanimous verdict.