Trial begins for former Benton Harbor superintendent
The trial for the former superintendent of Benton Harbor Area Schools began Tuesday.
Dr. Leonard Seawood is charged with embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses. He's accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the district from 2012 to 2015.
In court, the prosecution tried to paint him as a thief who exploited the school board when it came to the nuances of his contract.
"Ladies and gentlemen, that’s fraud. It needs to be called out for what it is," said Amy Byrd, the prosecutor for the state.
Over three years, the prosecution says Seawood took 75 days in extra vacation pay-outs, costing the district at least $46,000 at a time when BHAS was in financial arrears. His contract allowed him to take 25 vacation days a year. Those could roll over from one year to the next. Plus, he could "sell back," per se, five vacation days annually (ones that went unused), receiving an extra week of pay. Seawood's contract, presented in court., forbade individual board members, or administrators, from altering the work agreement.
"At the end of this trial, to go ahead and put a name on it, and call it for what it is and find the defendant guilty of false pretenses and embezzlement," urged Byrd.
The defense argued the goal of Seawood's trial is not to determine whether or not the board and the former superintendent breached a contract,
"Did he cheat someone when he asked to buy back his vacation days? That’s your decision," presented Matt Borgula, Seawood's lawyer.
According to the defense, Seawood accrued 50 vacation days over two years because the board would not allow him to take a vacation, despite his requests to take time off. Then, Seawood asked the former school board president -- and separately, the treasurer -- permission to "sell back" 50 vacation days.
"They agreed," said Borgula. "He asks somebody. He gets their signature."
The prosecution called four witnesses, three of whom were current or former board members serving under Seawood. A fourth witness was a corporate investigator, who was hired in May 2015 to probe into irregular payments and expenditures in Benton Harbor Area Schools.
The trial continues Wednesday.