NYC mayor cross-examined at ex-operative's trial

AP News
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Posted: Oct 03, 2011 5:53 PM
NYC mayor cross-examined at ex-operative's trial

Mayor Michael Bloomberg testified Monday against a former campaign operative accused of bilking him out of more than $1 million, then underwent hours of cross-examination by a defense lawyer who questioned whether he had skirted the law and came close to calling the billionaire politician a liar.

"He promised things that he didn't do," Bloomberg said of John Haggerty, who is accused of persuading the mayor and his staff to finance an expansive poll-monitoring initiative that never materialized, then using most of the cash to buy himself a house.

"Isn't that what you regularly did at Salomon Bros.?" lawyer Raymond Castello responded.

Castello asked the mayor a number of potentially uncomfortable questions, reading from a passage in his autobiography in which he said that as a businessman he had promised customers more than he planned to deliver, and bringing up topics that could be unpopular with voters and jurors _ from his flip-flop on extending term limits to his decision to keep an aide's domestic-violence arrest private even when publicly announcing his departure.

"I don't lie," the mayor said.

Bloomberg, for his part, remained calm but wary on the stand, even when Castello raised his voice and repeatedly pointed his index finger at the mayor. Bloomberg at one point appeared bemused when he was confronted with the words from his own autobiography, smiling as he considered the text.

The defense has sought to paint a picture of a high-rolling candidate surrounded by privileged insiders who dodged ethics rules, threw money at problems and didn't hesitate to bend the law. But prosecutors do not accuse the mayor of any wrongdoing, and Bloomberg's representatives have said his campaign broke no laws and followed standard practices.

Haggerty presented Bloomberg campaign aides with a budget for a 2009 "ballot security" operation, to be financed through a personal gift from Bloomberg to the state Independence Party. The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-unaffiliated Bloomberg was then running for a third term on the Independence Party, Republican and other lines.

Bloomberg said he never would have donated the money to the party if he had thought it wouldn't be used on a poll-monitoring operation.

"I know exactly what we paid $1.1 million for, and my understanding is that we did not receive that service," he said.

The defense argues that prosecutors can't prove the money was stolen from Bloomberg because the mayor's donation to the party was placed in a fund that could not legally be earmarked for a specific purpose. Bloomberg testified that while he may not have had control over the use of the money, his campaign and the Independence Party had an "understanding."

Bloomberg testified that he couldn't say who in the Independence Party had made the agreement, because Haggerty was his campaign's representative in the matter.

The defense has sought to highlight the lack of a paper trail for some of the mayor's spending, and when asked whether he had a contract with Howard Wolfson, who handled communications for his 2009 campaign before becoming a deputy mayor, Bloomberg said: "Probably not."

"Generally I've never believed in contracts," he said. "If I look someone in the eye, and he seems trustworthy, a handshake is worth more to me than a piece of paper."

And while the defense has insinuated that the billionaire and his aides are loose with his money, on the stand Bloomberg said otherwise.

"Until you had all the documentation, nobody in their right mind would send a check," said the businessman-turned-politician, who told jurors the lost money mattered to him: "We could have done a lot of good in society" with it, he said. "It's a lot of money."

Still, the mayor said under cross-examination that he had no memory of $1.2 million in contributions to the Independence Party, the state's third largest, a year before his 2009 campaign. That money, he said after he was told of the donations, would have been given to the party with no strings attached.

Haggerty, 42, is a veteran of several prominent New York Republican campaigns. As a volunteer on Bloomberg's 2009 campaign, Haggerty was the point man on ballot security, a term used mainly by Republicans for poll watching with an eye to preventing voter fraud. Democrats in New York and elsewhere have long said it's a euphemism for suppressing votes, often in minority-heavy precincts.

Bloomberg said his ballot security operation was meant to deploy poll watchers and lawyers to every city voting site "to make sure that people who want to vote and have the right to vote don't get pushed aside."

But Castello suggested the effort had a different bent, saying Bloomberg had asked Haggerty, "How are you going to keep them from stealing the election?" Bloomberg said he didn't recall such a conversation and had never had a substantive discussion of any kind with Haggerty.

Haggerty lawyers argue that Bloomberg paid for the operation through the Independence Party to distance himself from the practice, especially because state Democrats had complained about his involvement with it in 2005.

Wasn't it fair to say the term has "a negative connotation?" Castello asked Bloomberg.

"In some periods in our history, in some parts of the country, yes. I don't think so in New York," said the mayor, who said he thought paying for the poll-monitoring through the party instead of as a campaign expense was both legal and proper, since it benefited all candidates on the Independence Party line.

After the mayor left the courtroom, Haggerty lawyer and former state Attorney General Dennis Vacco said he was surprised with how many questions on campaign finance law Bloomberg had been unable to answer.

"The amount of money that he's spending on these campaigns, you would think that he would be a little more familiar with the laws of the state of New York and the city," he said.

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