By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Michael Bloomberg never once complained about the million-plus dollars that District Attorney Cy Vance says was plucked from the mayor's pocket during last year's election. He gets outright nasty when asked about it: "I'm sorry that my English isn't good enough for you," barked the mayor when reporters pressed him last week about how this crime occurred.
Previously, the only robbery victims known to clam up and get all defensive like this were drug dealers and mobsters, who understandably don't gripe about the loss of ill-gotten gains. We now add to this category mega-millionaire politicians whose campaigns are cloaked in secrecy and who would rather take a seven-figure hit than suffer the spotlight of a criminal inquiry.
Right now, the man accused of conning the mayor out of $1.1 million is also keeping mum. The only public comment so far from John Haggerty Jr., a second-generation Republican political power, was at his arraignment on grand larceny charges. "Not guilty," he said.
If he could safely do so, Haggerty would have a great many interesting things to say. It may be true, as Vance's indictment alleges, that he misled Bloomberg's campaign into believing that he would field an army of poll watchers. It may also be true that his goal in this scheme, as also alleged, was to get the money he needed to buy out his siblings' interest in the graceful brick home in Forest Hills that belonged to their late father, Jack Haggerty, the former leader of the Queens Republican party.
But it's also true that, right up to that fateful election day, John Haggerty Jr. had worked his heart out for the Bloomberg cause with no apparent payment by the most generous political candidate in municipal history. Other top officials of Team Bloomberg scored the biggest paydays of their lives. Haggerty worked for free—at least as far as filings show. Yet his tasks were just as crucial, if not more so. He played the leading role in persuading five cranky Republican county leaders to get over their hurt feelings and give Bloomberg their nomination, even though the mayor had jilted them two years earlier by quitting their party. Take a look at those photos of Bloomberg's pre-nomination meetings in which he pleaded with GOP officials to let bygones be bygones. There's John Haggerty, quietly at his side.
Without the GOP nod, Bloomberg would've been forced to slog it out as a third-party candidate against an African-American Democrat on his left and a Republican spoiler on his right. We know how that would have turned out: Even with the GOP in line, Bloomberg managed only a 4 percent win, despite spending more than $108 million. We'd be talking today about Mayor William C. Thompson. That seems like reason enough to want to throw Haggerty a million bucks worth of thank-yous.
"John was responsible for the mayor's election," says Tom Ognibene, the former Queens Republican Councilmember. "Without the Republican line, he was not getting re-elected."
Ognibene is now running for lieutenant governor with millionaire Carl Paladino, for whom Haggerty is handling a Republican petition drive. But the men were once antagonists. Back in 2005, Ognibene angrily denounced Bloomberg's Republican bona fides, and tried to mount a primary challenge against the mayor. Haggerty was one of those who helped Bloomberg knock him off the ballot. "He was in the Board of Elections, day in and day out, scrutinizing my filings," says Ognibene.
Again, there were no disclosed payments from Bloomberg's campaign to Haggerty. But Ognibene says he was told at the time by Robert Muir, one of Bloomberg's election lawyers, that he was paying Haggerty out of his own contract with the campaign.
Muir died in 2006, but this makes a lot of sense. For one thing, as the Daily News' Adam Lisberg has noted, Muir cashed in big from Bloomberg's 2005 re-election effort, taking in a total of $1.9 million for petition work and voter canvassing. Plus, Haggerty and Muir went way back together: Haggerty's first job out of college was working as a paralegal for Muir's Brooklyn law firm. The two worked side by side in the campaign of Ron Lauder, the millionaire who set the pre-Bloomberg record for mayoral campaign spending when he ran in 1989. In the 2005 campaign, Bloomberg was so appreciative of Muir's efforts that he kept paying his widow for several months after he died.
Ognibene says that after he filed suit to remain on the ballot, Muir encouraged him. "Bob said, 'You are doing me a favor. Keep going into federal court.' He said, 'I'm taking care of Haggerty.' He was candid about it."
That past history persuades Ognibene that the reason Bloomberg never cried thief last year is because there was no harm and no foul. "John got this money funneled to him," he says. "That's why there was no complaint filed. He never took a penny. He could've been making hundreds of thousands of dollars. This was John's bonus."
Then there's Bloomberg's own curious performance in all this. Vance says that he's had complete cooperation from the mayor and his campaign, and that neither are targets. For that, Bloomberg can thank the state's election laws, which are murkier than a Louisiana oil slick.
For one thing, there's the fact that when the mayor launched his re-election committee, he had to sign a sworn candidate's form agreeing to do all his campaign spending via his designated committee, Bloomberg for Mayor 2009. And he did. Except where it suited him not to. When it came time to wire $1.2 million to the Independence Party so it could hire Haggerty to handle Bloomberg's election-day poll-watching chores, the mayor dipped into his personal account. Exactly why he did this remains a mystery. It was one of the questions that sent the mayor into his royal snit last week with reporters.
The most obvious explanation is secrecy. If the mayor did it through his campaign, the big-bucks contract would have been an instant news story since it would've been publicly disclosed just before voters hit the polls. It's easy to envision the headline, something along the lines of "Mayor Mike's Million Dollar Thank-You for Indy Party Endorsement."
By routing it through his own checking account, the mayor guaranteed that it would stay secret until mid-January, the party's next required public filing. That much of the scheme Haggerty was clearly involved in. In a note to Bloomberg's campaign staff cited in Vance's legal papers, Haggerty wrote that the payment for the operation should be funded with "a Housekeeping contribution that will not be reported until January 15, 2010."
Not that Mayor Mike needed help figuring that out. He did the exact same thing the year before, when he ran another million-plus dollars through his compliant friends at the Independence Party so that they could pay a secret Bloomberg campaign squad to work for Republican state senatorial candidates. Those payments didn't become public until weeks later. By then, only the Voice thought they were a big deal.
Right now, it's the Independence Party that's on the hot seat. Last week, the D.A. took the rare step of putting the party's lawyer in front of a grand jury to ask where the records are from this debacle. Party officials said they've already given what little they have. If so, it puts the spotlight back on City Hall. That's one more thing the billionaire media mogul who still nurtures White House dreams would rather not talk about.