It might qualify as dark comedy. To prosecutors and union officials, it qualifies as theft. Allen Blake and Chandra LaSonde, each a former board member of the local Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), were charged on Wednesday in Manhattan federal court with mail fraud. Prosecutors allege Blake, with LaSonde’s help, filed and eventually collected a false life insurance claim on behalf of Blake’s wife, Pearl, whom he’d recently divorced and who died not long after. Blake and LaSonde, each a guard at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, were forced out of the union in December by union President Norman Seabrook (in photo).
The facts have unfolded over several months. Blake, 53, received a divorce in July 2009. That September, his ex-wife died. Meanwhile, back in June, Seabrook stripped Ms. LaSonde, 44, of her administrative duties and gave them to COBA Vice President Elizabeth Castro on grounds that several beneficiaries hadn’t gotten their scheduled annuity payments. LaSonde managed to find work under Blake. On October 23, say prosecutors, she sent a letter to Prudential Insurance Company seeking a death benefit on Mr. Blake’s behalf. He received a check for slightly more than $10,000 on November 10. A month later, Castro approached Seabrook, informing him she could not find the accompanying paperwork for that claim. LaSonde, in fact, earlier had told her: “That’s Mr. Blake’s personal business. I don’t have to talk to you.” It looked pretty suspicious. On November 20, Seabrook confronted Blake at a board meeting; Blake admitted that he’d screwed up. LaSonde allegedly stated, “That’s Al’s business.” Seabrook then demanded the resignations of the pair. He got them a couple hours later.
A week later, however, Blake and LaSonde asked Seabrook to rescind the resignations. Seabrook refused. Not long after, supporters of Blake and LaSonde distributed a flier claiming the pair had been framed. The letter read: “Due to LaSonde and Blake not knowing how deep the COBA conspiracy went at that time, they submitted the forced resignations ordered by Norman Seabrook, while the remaining executive board members all stood by without interference and supported this illegal, orchestrated act.” Seabrook since has sent Prudential a check to reimburse it for the claim, and ordered an audit of all other benefit transactions handled by LaSonde. Blake, who claims he sent the money back to Prudential, says this is a case of an honest mistake; that he was simply unaware his protracted divorce had gone through before his wife died. For his sake, one hopes he’s right. If convicted, he and LaSonde face a maximum 20 years in federal prison.