Although he's not charged with the crime, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may very well be the star of an upcoming grand larceny trial. Jury selection started today in the trial of Republican political consultant John Haggerty, who stands accused of stealing more than $1 million from Bloomberg during the 2009 mayoral election. Officials say Haggerty spent most of the money on a house in Queens, but he contends that he did exactly what he was supposed to with the funds, and that Bloomberg's sneaky funneling of the money is the real problem, making a paper trail of exactly where the money went hard to come by. Enlisting a jury to determine the truth is complicated by the fact that victim is not only a billionaire, but in charge of the city. If Bloomberg does take the stand, he may be forced explain just how he managed to spend a record $110 million getting reelected — a Pandora's box of campaign finance maneuvers and insider political maneuvering that won't look good. That is, if anyone can understand it.
Haggerty's defense lawyers argue that Bloomberg knew exactly what was going to happen when he donated more than $1 million from his personal checking account to the state's Independence Party. They say that Bloomberg was using an indirect method to pay Haggerty for a "ballot security" operation so the mayor would not have to report it as a campaign expense, one that the public "might not like," according to the defense. (Ballot security is a controversial practice in which private groups work as watchdogs for voter fraud.) Prosecutors say Haggerty passed on $400,000 or so to the Independence Party and kept the rest for himself.
How much Haggerty's "services" cost, and whether or not he completed his assignment, is hard to determine in part because it wasn't officially on the books as an expense, which, Haggerty argues, is exactly how the mayor wanted it. According to the defense, Bloomberg knew that once he donated the money personally to the Independence Party he had no legal control over how it was spent.
But the mayor's campaign budget gymnastics, not Haggery's, threaten to be the real takeaway from the case. Bloomberg, whose grand jury testimony in the case is sealed, maintains that his use of loopholes was legal. "They don't know what they're talking about," he said in typically dismissive fashion of those who contend he broke campaign finance rules.
Not exactly sympathetic thanks to his riches, Bloomberg was also called sarcastic, irritable, and self-assured in past testimony for an unrelated case, indicating that he doesn't exactly shine on the stand. It's that "philosopher-king" attitude, according to one public affairs professor, that means Bloomberg's words could be a boon for Haggerty.
But until the Campaign Finance Board decides whether Bloomberg actually broke civil election laws, the only thing he really has to lose is popularity points. Luckily for him, there's no reelection this time around.