Just being there was humbling. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg LP and the city’s wealthiest citizen, sat in criminal court answering a hot series of questions about shady political maneuvers and the corrupting influence of money, two frequent subjects of his political contempt.
Bloomberg, who can be famously testy when questioned, kept his composure on the stand, but despite staying on script his testimony was politically devastating – exposing the mayor’s magical thinking, in which money corrupts, except for his money; and politics corrupt, except for his politics.
Bloomberg was there as witness for the prosecution in the trial of John Haggerty, the political operative accused of pocketing nearly a million dollars of the $1.2 million that Bloomberg had given as a “gift” to the Independence Party, which was supposed to spend $1.1 million of it on so-called “ballot security” for his 2009 reelection campaign, with the remaining $100,000 as an actual gift. The contribution was made to the party’s so-called “housekeeping” committee, which allowed Bloomberg to skirt the state’s campaign finance limits, but also meant that it couldn’t be used on his behalf or that of any single candidate, and that Bloomberg couldn’t dictate how it was spent.
Haggerty’s lawyers have hardly even bothered to deny that he took the money. Instead, they’ve argued that the mayor having given the gift lost control over the money so that he has no standing to complain about how it was spent. In effect, they tried to put the mayor on trial by constructing an underdog narrative with the big crook getting out-conned by the little one.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s complaint is that he never would have given a private gift he had no right to control if he’d known it wouldn’t be spent in the way he wanted, in service of his political interests.
Making a case that at points tracked the political indictment of the mayor I laid out in “Citizen Bloomberg”, defense lawyer Raymond Castello zeroed in on the many ways Bloomberg’s many roles intersected, and benefitted each other.
The donation to the Independence Party, for instance, was made by Michael Bloomberg, private citizen, and never reported by the campaign, though it did show up after the electionon on the party’s January disclosure forms. Bloomberg’s top aides move freely between jobs at City Hall, on his campaigns, for his philanthropy, for his business and for the man himself. They often “volunteer” – Haggerty was a volunteer in 2005 and 2009 – with a fair expectation of being rewarded down the road by one of Bloomberg’s many interests, each tending to benefit the others.
(I’m not convinced any of that has much to do with Haggerty’s guilt or innocence, but as defense lawyer Dennis Vacco told the press after the mayor left the stand, that’s for the jury to decide. My gut is that the defense is trying as much to puck off a juror or two to hang them than to win an acquittal).
Explaining why he’s paid for his own campaigns, Bloomberg said, “I didn’t want to have anybody ever say that any of my decisions were ever influenced by campaign contributions and I was lucky enough to be able to it personally.”
“I didn’t think it was appropriate for the campaign to write a check like that,” Bloomberg said about his personal check to the Independence Party. “Because it has to be for all the candidates of the Independence Party, not one candidate, and the public has a right to know how much I spent on MY election.” Asked to name any other candidate who ran on the party’s line in 2009, and thus would have purportedly benefitted from Bloomberg’s largesse, he could not, saying that was “a long time ago.” He was equally vague on other particulars, saying his lawyers or staffers would know the details about the $1.2 million he’d given the party a year earlier while working to overturn term limits.
Painting a political operation in his interests as a social good, as Bloomberg frequently does, he implausibly painted the “ballot security” operation as a public service he was benevolently providing. “The security is the process to make sure that people who want to vote have the right to vote and don’t get pushed” out of the booth, he implausibly explained, repeating the point – one of several seemingly scripted refrains he tried to return to regardless of the question asked – multiple times.
The three-term mayor said he had little recollection of the complaints leveled by his last two opponents, Fernando Ferrer in 2005 and Bill Thompson in 2009, that those services amounted to potential voter suppression.
Staying with the magical virture of his money, the mayor insisted the $1.1 million he’d given to the Independence Party in 2008, when he was working to overturn the term limits law and allow himself a third term, was truly a black check, simply “to support the party that had put me on their line and who I would like to encourage to provide good government to the people of New York.”
In fact, the Independence Party, which is valuable in large part because of its trick name (many members sign up up accident, checking the party’s box off thinking it means that they’re unaffiliated or politically independent), provided the mayor’s margin of victory in 2001, and again in 2009.
“Out of 550,000 votes… we got a good 150,000 [that] were on the Independence Party line,” Bloomberg said on the stand. “So yes it was very valuable to be on multiple lines.”
This year, a fraction of the money was again a gift, but the rest of his “gift” was payment for a service: “I’m not sure what the legalities are, but it was certainly the understanding with the Independence Party that they getting a hundred thousand dollar contribution for their general party… and for the 1.1 million [dollars] they were to provide ballot security.”
The two preceding witnesses called by the prosecution were Bloomberg’s closest political aides, former Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, who’s now an executive at Bloomberg LP, and First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris, who does “volunteer” work on the side dispersing the vast funds of Bloomberg’s Family Foundation. They, too, were vague and often “couldn’t recall” when pressed on the particulars of the mayor’s political operation. But after each of them was cross-examined, the DA went through a redirect to reestablish the basic facts: Haggerty had promised to provide an election day service, money had been given to the Independence Party on the basis of those promises, and the service was not provided.
After Bloomberg’s cross examination, though, the prosecution had no further questions. It’s one thing if top lieutenants can’t account for each action – it’s another when the man in charge is equally “forgetful.” With so much damage already done to their case and perhaps to the mayor, the sooner Bloomberg left the courtroom, the better.