By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg takes the stand in a Manhattan criminal courtroom on Monday to testify against a political consultant accused of stealing more than $1 million of the billionaire's money.
John Haggerty is charged with promising to provide an expensive poll-watching operation for the 2009 election but which prosecutors say he never performed. Instead, they say, he spent the bulk of the money he received on a house.
Haggerty's defense lawyers have said they plan to turn the focus of the trial on the mayor's $109-million self-financed campaign, arguing that Haggerty is the fall man for improper campaign funding.
The defense has asserted that the campaign's decision to funnel the money through the state Independence Party, rather than paying Haggerty directly, was a violation of campaign finance law intended to distance the mayor from "ballot security," a practice some Democrats liken to voter suppression.
The mayor and his aides have said that the indirect funding was legal. The district attorney's office did not find any wrongdoing on the part of Bloomberg or his campaign.
"There are two trials going on here," said Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College in New York. "One is the legal proceedings at 100 Center Street and the other is the trial of Michael Bloomberg and his campaign."
Bloomberg, who won a third term in 2009, is the 12th richest man in the United States with $19.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Prosecutors have sought to show that the mayor would never have contributed the money without Haggerty's promises. They point to allegedly phony checks Haggerty created months after the election as evidence that he tried to cover up his fraud.
The defense has already cross-examined two longtime Bloomberg aides, Kevin Sheekey and Patricia Harris, in an attempt to show the mayor plays fast and loose with his campaign money.
Bloomberg is known for showing irritation, contempt, and even snarling insults at journalists. He once called a reporter a "disgrace" for questioning his rationale for seeking a third term, berated a wheelchair-bound blogger whose tape player went off, and dismisses queries he considers a waste of time.
But once he's on the witness stand, however, Bloomberg may find he can't put an end to the interrogation so easily.
"Unlike a press conference, (he) can't call reporters stupid," Muzzio said. "If asked a direct question that's appropriate, he's got to answer it."
But Bloomberg's testimony may ultimately disappoint those expecting testy comments if the mayor keeps an even keel and maintains that he followed the advice of his cadre of campaign consultants and lawyers.
"I expect his testimony to be straightforward without any fireworks," said Jerry Goldfeder, a campaign finance and election lawyer who worked for Bloomberg's opponent, Bill Thompson, in 2009. "Reporters love fireworks, but witnesses don't."
(Editing by Michelle Nichols and Philip Barbara)