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Former BH superintendent testifies in embezzlement trial

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. -- Day two of former Benton Harbor Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Leonard Seawood’s embezzlement trial was full of testimony from witnesses from both sides, including Seawood himself.

“It was a spiritual decision for me,” said Seawood, when recounting what led him to decide to come back home to Benton Harbor to take the superintendent job in 2010. “It was a decision that wasn’t made lightly. It was a dream to come back and be the superintendent of my alma mater. I felt that everything I had done up until that point in my career was preparing me for this challenge.”

Seawood testified Wednesday afternoon as a jury of seven men and seven women prepare to decide whether or not he’s guilty of taking a cash payout of over $45,000 for unused vacation days that the prosecution says are illegitimate.

The former superintendent said the district was in financial ruin when he took over. He said there was so much chaos, he was barely able to take a vacation, even when he had planned to.

“By the time that month rolled around – it was time for me to take the [vacation] time – there was always something going on in the district that that time just fell off the calendar,” Seawood said.

Before he testified Wednesday afternoon, two other witnesses took the stand for the defense.

Earlier in the day, the prosecution brought up four more witnesses, bringing their total for the trial to eight.

One was former Benton Harbor Interim Superintendent Gregory Weatherspoon, who came in after Seawood was suspended in 2015.

He explained how the superintendent’s contract worked.

“If you’re going to change it, it’s going to go back before the board and be put on an agenda,” Weatherspoon said. “And changing it, it would then be done in board action.”

Former Benton Harbor Area Schools Board President Sharon James also testified for the prosecution.

While she did say Seawood worked a lot, to the point where he rarely took time off, she said the one vacation pay-back form she signed for him was not what she thought it was.

“He had not taken a lot of vacation time,” James said. “Dr. Seawood was constantly at work.”

She added: “I signed a form that said ‘vacation request form.’ That’s what it looked like to me. I never saw anything that said ‘in lieu of vacation payment.’”

The prosecution spent a good chunk of the afternoon cross-examining Seawood. There was a decent amount of confusion over who kept track of his unused vacation days; he said he entrusted the district’s human resources department and his secretary to keep up with everything.

There was also talk about a $60,000 investment Seawood made in Lark’s Bar-B-Que in Benton Harbor.

One of the defense’s witnesses is Seawood’s business partner.

Seawood said he took three loans out to cover the cost of the investment – which was made while he was superintendent – but he said he never used the money he got for his unused vacation days for the restaurant.

Closing arguments are set to begin at 9 o’clock Thursday morning.

Then the case will be handed over to the jury.

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