Defense seeks to discredit star prosecution witness Former friend assailed in embezzlement case

September 19, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A hard drinker. A heavy gambler. A turncoat who would betray his best friend to save himself from a federal prison term.

Defense lawyers for Harry Seidman -- accused of embezzling $800,000 from an international maritime union based outside Baltimore -- had some harsh words yesterday and Tuesday for the government's star witness.

Attorney Mark J. Biros tried to show jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that the prosecution's case against Seidman, a former financial officer for the union, rests on the unreliable word of one man: a tough-talking New Yorker named Ronald Schoop.

For nearly 20 years, federal prosecutors say, Seidman, 64, and Schoop, 60, were the best of friends. They also say Schoop, who ran a graphics firm that did printing work for the union, engaged in a scheme with Seidman to swindle the union, which represents ship captains and deck officers around the country and the world.

Prosecutors say Schoop billed the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots for work that was never done and double-billed for printing jobs. In exchange, Seidman wrote union checks to Schoop's personal account. Schoop cashed the checks, prosecutors say, and kicked most of the money back to Seidman.

"Was it a crime?" Biros asked.

"Perhaps," Schoop said.

"Is there a doubt?" Biros asked.

"Not now," Schoop said, prompting laughter from several jurors.

Biros told jurors there was another explanation for what happened. He reminded jurors that Schoop has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and is cooperating with the government and could receive a reduction in a possible five-year prison term because of his testimony.

Biros also tried to portray Schoop as an alcoholic and heavy gambler who might have submitted false invoices and double bills to the union to pay off big casino debts. He asked the jury to consider a different explanation for why Schoop gave money to Seidman.

Biros said Schoop gave cash to Seidman for safe keeping for Schoop's children by preventing him from spending it at the slot machines and blackjack tables at Bally's in Atlantic City. In one day, Schoop gambled $140,000 on $100 slot machines and wound up losing about $3,000, Biros said.

Biros also reminded the jury of a letter Schoop signed a few months after Seidman was forced to resign from the union and Schoop's business arrangement with the union was terminated when the alleged scheme was uncovered in December 1993. On March 21, 1994, Seidman asked Schoop to sign a letter stating that Seidman had been holding $265,000 in a trust fund for Schoop and that Seidman wanted to return it.

"You were afraid that, because of your penchant for gambling and alcohol, you would spend all or a great majority of your income, thereby leaving nothing for your children," the letter reads.

Schoop signed the letter and took the cash. These days, Schoop and prosecutors say the only reason Seidman wrote the letter was to lay the groundwork for a possible defense, knowing that the embezzlement scheme could result in criminal charges.

"I refer to the whole thing as nonsense," Schoop testified.

Biros also tried to show that Schoop may have cheated the federal government out of income taxes because he kept some of the proceeds from the personal checks Seidman wrote to him out of the union's accounts.

But Schoop said he kept the cash to cover business outings with Seidman -- including dinners and $300 visits to massage parlors.

"I feel very confident that I am within the letter of the law when it comes to my tax liability," Schoop testified.

At times, the sparring between Biros and Schoop was humorous.

Biros asked Schoop whether the money he gambled at Bally's would have been better spent on a therapist. "It was more fun than going to a therapist," Schoop said.

But other times, Biros' cross-examination became bitter.

Biros showed Schoop a series of snapshots taken in happier times, when Schoop and Seidman were best friends, and Schoop enjoyed a close relationship with Seidman's daughter.

Schoop flipped through the photographs as he sat a dozen feet away from his former best friend. Seidman's wife and their daughter watched from the gallery.

"Nice pictures. Can I keep them?" Schoop asked, his question thick with sarcasm.

Biros didn't miss a beat.

"You've taken enough from Mr. Seidman," he said.

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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