For Al Sharpton, October 1 through 3 was a 60th birthday celebration to savor. But the most memorable part of that three-day occasion may have been something definitely not on the itinerary. Last Wednesday night, following a corporate-sponsored fundraising banquet for Sharpton’s nonprofit National Action Network (NAN) at Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant, a close associate, attorney Sanford Rubenstein, allegedly raped an unnamed 42-year-old black woman who is a ranking NAN official. The two had gone to Rubenstein’s nearby penthouse with another woman following the dinner. Rubenstein (in photo background), who was not arrested, vehemently denies the charge, saying the sex was consensual. But police are treating the case as a possible third-degree rape, meaning the alleged victim was incapable of giving consent. Sharpton, in response, has severed his ties to Rubenstein. Yet their relationship, while it lasted, suggests a lucrative quid pro quo.
For a lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, now 70, has done exceptionally well for himself. Not only does he own the aforementioned penthouse, he also owns a luxury home in the Hamptons on Long Island. His specialty is personal injury cases. From the offices of his Brooklyn, N.Y.-based firm, Rubenstein & Rynecki, he is known widely as “the man to see” when allegations of excessive police force are involved. His 2010 self-published autobiography, “The Outrageous Rubenstein: How a Media-Savvy Trial Lawyer Fights for Justice and Change,” summarizes his defining cases. Al Sharpton wrote a laudatory Foreward to the book. There’s a story behind that.
The two first met back in the summer of 1997 in a police brutality case involving a black Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima. Evidence showed that several NYPD cops, while detaining Louima, repeatedly beat and sodomized him while in handcuffs at a Brooklyn precinct station. The victim’s family had hired Rubenstein as their lawyer. Rubenstein and Sharpton saw a mutual advantage in a partnership. Rubenstein got invaluable free publicity when Sharpton, true to form, organized thousands of street demonstrators, transforming the case into a national trial on race. Sharpton, running for New York City mayor at the time, in turn got an image enhancement. For once, he had what looked like a credible campaign, in contrast to his earlier Crown Heights, Freddy’s Fashion Mart and other campaigns that justifiably had made him a target of much public revulsion. The partnership bore fruit. The most reprehensible of the arresting officers, Justin Volpe, received a stiff 30-year prison sentence in December 1999. Rubenstein in July 2001 settled with the City of New York for $8.75 million, a sum earning him a hefty lawyer’s fee. And Sharpton gained political capital in advancing his obsession with discrediting Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Sanford Rubenstein has continued to provide legal services for Sharpton-advised clients. He represented the family of Sean Bell, a young black male fatally shot by New York City police in November 2006 at his bachelor party in Queens while trying to run over an officer with his car. The case led to a $7.15 million settlement in 2010 on behalf of Bell’s estate and certain companions. Until early today, citing his legal problems, Rubenstein had represented Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black male who died in Staten Island, N.Y. this past July 17 as a result of an allegedly illegal police chokehold while being apprehended for selling loose cigarettes; Garner’s family announced on Tuesday their intent to sue the City for $75 million in damages.
Rubenstein thus was a natural invitee to the Reverend Al’s birthday shindig at the Four Seasons restaurant on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Rubenstein seemed to behave himself at the party. Apparently, the aftermath was a much different story. After the party, Rubenstein, accompanied by two unnamed women, took a limo to his penthouse apartment on East 64th Street. After spending some time together, one of the women left. That left two people – Sanford Rubenstein and his eventual accuser – alone. The intentions of Rubenstein, a regular visitor of swingers’ clubs, were not platonic. According to the woman’s statement to police, Rubenstein raped her that night and again the following morning. After taking her complaint, police found a sex toy and several bloody condoms inside Rubenstein’s penthouse, swabbing each for DNA traces. After leaving the Manhattan D.A.’s office, the woman was seen holding a booklet given to her by a hospital titled, “After Sexual Assault: A Recovery Guide for Survivors.” The woman, a resident of Brooklyn, a retail executive, and an official with National Action Network, had visited the hospital for bleeding. When spotted in public, she covered her face with dark clothing.
Rubenstein, who has not been arrested or charged with any offense, admits he twice had sex with the woman. But he is adamant that the activity was purely consensual. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, explained things this way: “I will not comment on any aspect of this investigation or any of the alleged facts reported in the press, even those I know to be patently false.” An unnamed source backed him up. “They (the trio) were all out on the balcony at one point,” said the person. Then, “they left [Rubenstein] alone there while the two women went to the bathroom, and he was out there with their drinks.” That the alleged victim had been drinking was not in dispute. But was she drunk to the point of passing out? The evidence doesn’t point in that direction. Sources on both sides acknowledge that a building surveillance video revealed the woman as able to walk straight while she and her female companion entered the lobby with Rubenstein. He had a woman on each arm. “There are two videos: one [of her] coming in and one leaving,” a police source stated. “Going in, she seems fine.” An unnamed person close to Rubenstein added the footage “shows her (the alleged victim) upright, strutting into the lobby with Rubenstein and her friend, as if they were marching down the aisle at a wedding.” The person said: “Any suggestion this woman is stumbling around drunk is a complete fabrication.”
Al Sharpton, protecting his own, has a different take. He announced on Tuesday that he was ending his relationship with Rubenstein, the man he long had called “Brother Sanford.” Sharpton explained to the New York Daily News: “Even if it was consensual, why would he take a key leader of our organization back to his apartment right after a fundraiser? It’s disrespectful toward our movement, and the women in our network are absolutely outraged.” Yet if a 17-year friendship has come to a sudden halt, there are a few potential ethical issues about their working relationship. And one of them suggests illegal activity. As indicated earlier, Rubenstein was the lawyer for the family of Sean Bell, the young black man who had tried to run over a New York City cop outside of a bar where he and some of his friends were holding a bachelor party before they got into a scuffle with some other patrons. Five police officers on the scene had used their service revolvers to fire a combined 50 shots. Roughly half of those shots hit Bell and two of his companions, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield. Bell, Guzman and Benefield, in fact, each had extensive criminal records. Bell was killed. His friends were wounded, but survived. A grand jury indicted three of the officers. Unfortunately, while on the witness stand as prosecution witnesses, Guzman and Benefield were their own worst enemy. At one point in his testimony, Benefield inadvertently opened a suspicious door. He stated that he didn’t have to work because he gets all his money from National Action Network. “Every month they give me whatever I need,” said Benefield. His needs reportedly reached $3,000 a month. Rubenstein later confirmed Benefield was being supported by a special NAN fund. Page 38 of my NLPC Special Report, “Mainstreaming Demagoguery: Al Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability,” first published in 2009 and soon to be expanded in book form, discusses this admission.
So where did the financially-troubled NAN get that kind of money to throw around? If it came from Sanford Rubenstein, with NAN serving as an intermediary, the disbursements may have been prohibited under law. That, even more than the sex, may be the ultimate scandal. Rev. Sharpton can’t be expected to police the sex lives of his board members, employees or clients. That includes Rubenstein, said to be “hung like a cashew.” But the details of their financial relationship may come out over the course of this case. Sharpton, for one, has good reason to avoid visiting this issue.
Postscript: The case had a sort-of-happy ending. The woman, Iasha Rivers, a member of the National Action Network board of directors, filed a civil suit in January 2015 against Rubenstein, who then countersued for defamation. Eventually, each decided to call things off. Their lawyers signed an agreement on February 25, 2016 dropping all claims, though they were mum about specifics. Was this, then, an attempt by Ms. Rivers to boost her bank account? And was NAN effectively laundering donations by Rubenstein to Trent Benefield? These questions may be destined to remain unanswered.