Jurors get political education at NYC trial

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2011 2:58 AM
Jurors get political education at NYC trial

After weeks of testimony from City Hall insiders and legal experts who lifted a veil on the inner workings of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaigns, jurors who convicted a former operative of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the mayor said they had received an education in the realities of politics.

"There's so much money being thrown around, but it's very broad-stroked. No one looks at details or digs down, and I found that fascinating," juror Stephen Conroy said Friday after delivering the guilty verdict against John Haggerty, who was accused of promising the mayor's 2009 campaign an elaborate $1.1 million poll-watching operation, then spending just $32,000 on the effort and pocketing most of the rest to buy a house.

Another panelist, Piper Gray, said that after starting the trial with no opinions on politics, she left it knowing exactly where she stands.

"Now I'm probably never going to donate to a campaign," she said.

Michael Boice left the experience with more equanimity.

"I don't know if it's shady," he said. "There's a system that's set up, and people find a way not to get around the system, but they found a way to work within the system that they have."

In three days of deliberations, the panelists considered revealing testimony from an all-star cast of New York political insiders, from the mayor himself to some of his closest advisers.

Bloomberg's 2009 campaign manager conceded on the stand that he had worried Haggerty's operation could look bad to the public. A former deputy mayor told jurors that he hadn't enjoyed his first two years at City Hall because he found it more difficult to get things done there than at Bloomberg's eponymous financial information company. Bloomberg's top city deputy and longtime confidante detailed how she was authorized to spend the mayor's vast personal funds.

And the mayor himself went under oath, speaking calmly and precisely even as a defense attorney raised his voice, pointed his finger at him and came close to calling him a liar. To the defense's questions, Bloomberg said repeatedly that he could not remember the answers. Among the things he could not recall: $1.2 million in additional donations to the Independence Party the year before Haggerty entered the picture.

Defense lawyers again and again tried to turn jurors' attention to the mayor, painting a picture of a former mogul who threw his money at problems and surrounded himself with highly paid insiders so desperate to hold onto power that they didn't care how Haggerty spent the money he was given, as long as he got results.

And jurors said their tense deliberations began with the panel evenly split on whether to convict, with some panelists swayed by the defense's depiction of a high-rolling, win-at-all-costs campaign.

"There was a lot of talk in the jury room just about conspiracy," juror Stephen Conroy said. "Just that everybody was in on it, Haggerty was the fall guy."

Throughout the trial, prosecutors maintained the mayor was the victim in a simple but lucrative scam: Haggerty, assigned to handle poll-watching for the campaign, drew up a budget to pay more than 1,300 watchers, hire drivers and rent hotel rooms. Once the mayor had donated money to the state Independence Party to pay for the effort, Haggerty created a company through which to launder the money, and used $750,000 to buy a house.

On Friday, state Supreme Court Justice Ronald Zweibel ordered the 42-year-old held on $250,000 bail after the jury found him guilty of second-degree grand larceny and money laundering. He faces up to 15 years in prison at sentencing.

The defense contended that the mayor's campaign _ which cost the billionaire more than $100 million _ had tried to distance itself from Haggerty's so-called ballot security project by arranging for Bloomberg to pay for it through the Independence Party _ a contribution that wouldn't be reported until after the election.

Democrats in New York and elsewhere have long said that such operations are a cover for voter suppression, often in precincts with large minority populations. On the stand, the mayor _ who narrowly won the 2009 race against then-city Comptroller Bill Thompson, who is black _ said he believed the ballot security effort was meant to ensure that voters didn't encounter problems at the polls, and paying for it through the party was simply standard procedure.

"For months the defense has attempted to cast aspersions on Mayor Bloomberg and make him the focus of this case," Bloomberg spokesman Jason Post said in a statement after the verdict. "We are pleased that the jury saw through their cynical efforts and reached a verdict based on the evidence and the law."

Boice, who only recently became a New Yorker, said that the trial _ while revealing _ hadn't helped him form an opinion of the mayor.

"They do important things," he said of the political players who took the stand. "And people who do important things make money. That's just the way it works."


Samantha Gross can be reached at www.twitter.com/samanthagross