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Embezzlement trial for former BH superintendent begins

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. -- Tuesday was the first day of former Benton Harbor Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Leonard Seawood’s jury trial for embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses.

A 14-person jury – seven men and seven women, two serving as alternates – was selected Tuesday morning.

The trial officially began Tuesday afternoon with opening statements from the prosecution and defense.

Seawood is alleged to have taken a cash payout of more than $45,000 for 75 unused, illegitimate, vacation days during his tenure as superintendent.

“He took the approach of going to one individual [school board member] at a time; in one case he went to two people,” said Amy Byrd, Berrien County assistant prosecutor. “And he’s like, ‘Hey, can you sign this form for me to get a payout?’ If they asked a question about the number of days written on the form, he said it was correct. If they didn’t ask a question, he didn’t provide information.”

Byrd added: “If they seemed confused about what they were signing, or the circumstances under which they were signing, he didn’t correct them. They relied on what he represented to them to their detriment, mostly to the detriment of the district.”

Seawood’s attorneys say he just wanted to be compensated for vacation days he was unable to take because the district was in financial chaos and required he work around the clock.

They said Seawood was unable to take one day off in his first two years on the job.

“Dr. Seawood could not leave [for vacation] because the board wouldn’t let him,” said Matt Borgula, one of Seawood’s attorneys. “He couldn’t take a vacation…Did he intend to cheat someone when he asked permission to buy back his vacation days – to sell back his vacation days? That’s your decision. You [the jury] have to decide what was in his head.”

The prosecution called four witnesses to the stand on Tuesday: an investigator with the firm that was hired in 2015 to look into the district’s finances, and three former Benton Harbor school board presidents who served under Seawood; including one who is still a board member.

Much of Tuesday afternoon was spent asking each witness, except the investigator, about their role in approving the request forms Seawood had filled out to formally get paid out for his unused vacation days.

His contract stated he could only receive a payout for five unused vacation days each year.

An investment Seawood made in a Benton Harbor barbeque business during his time as superintendent was also brought into question, but the defense said Seawood had taken a loan out to pay for it.

The trial will continue on Wednesday morning.

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