‘Volunteer’ day: What is the meaning of Haggerty’s guilt, and Bloomberg’s independence?

John Haggerty. (Azi Paybarah )
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Harry Siegel

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On the wood paneling behind the bench of Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Ronald Zweibel, who has presided over the case of John Haggerty, the political operative accused of stealing a million dollars and change from New York’s billionaire mayor during his $100 million-plus 2009 reelection bid, the motto emblazoned on the wood reads: “IN GOd WE TrUSt.” The letters are all uppercase, but the "D", "R", and second "T" are replacements, smaller and shinier than the others.

The shabby motto, with its Melvillean suggestion of misplaced confidence, matched the shabbiness of the trial, in which words were shorn of their very meaning.

Shortly before noon on Oct. 21, the jury found John Haggerty, a campaign “volunteer," guilty on charges of second-degree grand larceny and money laundering for pocketing more than a million dollars that Bloomberg had "donated" to the New York State Independence Party to pay for election-day "ballot security" for Bloomberg and also, nominally, for the other candidates the party was fielding in that election.

The verdict, like those other Independence Party candidates, felt like an afterthought. The fate of Haggerty, a Queens-based Republican operative, was never the reason that members of the press packed the courtroom gallery over the course of several weeks to follow the proceedings. Nor was it the disappearance of the mayor’s money, which wasn’t even of much interest to the mayor himself.

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Members of the media were there for a rare opportunity to hear Bloomberg and his top aides testifying under oath about the murky inner dealings of his operation.

The trial’s glossary of double-talk opens with the setting itself, "Manhattan Supreme Court," which despite its name is New York’s trial-level court. (The state’s high court is the Court of Appeals.) Its judges are nominally elected to 14-year terms but in practice they're selected by party bosses who dole out the Democratic line, thereby virtually guaranteeing victory in down-ballot races.

Throughout the trial, a hot-dog man was stationed outside the court with an ad on the side of his cart for a bail bondsman. People just in or out of lockup did their best to bum smokes from $13 packs.

On the second day of the trial, during a lunchtime break in the testimony of Kevin Sheekey—Bloomberg’s longtime political adviser, former deputy mayor and sometimes campaign “volunteer” who’s now the chairman of Bloomberg Government (really, that’s the name), a branch of the mayor’s private company—a new set of lawyers came in and Judge Zweibel briefly turned his attention to a pregnant young woman pleading down an assault charge.

The empty language that came up inside the Supreme Court all traces back to the billionaire mayor who won office in 2001 on the premise that a candidate willing to serve for a buck a year couldn’t be bought, so that while money had corrupted politics and public service, his money could redeem it. In office, he’s put that money where his mouth is, using his private fortune and his philanthropic trust to help advance his political interests. His media business provides a soft landing for trusted advisers and necessary allies; its opinion arm, Bloomberg View, reflects his views.

That confusion of the many Bloomberg brands, all of them serving the greater good of Michael Bloomberg, was a key theme of the Haggerty defense. The mayor’s private lawyers were representing many of the prosecution witnesses who worked for him at Bloomberg L.P., the Bloomberg Family Trust and City Hall, at Bloomberg’s personal expense. Bloomberg even had his own private spokesman in the courtroom, former first deputy press secretary Jason Post, who was referred to in many news reports as “a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.”

To recap: Bloomberg “donated” $1.2 million from his private fortune to the so-called housekeeping account of the Independence Party, whose line the small-i independent-registered mayor was running on, along with the Republicans’. It was the largest contribution the party had ever received, breaking Bloomberg's own record gift the previous year. The party was in turn supposed to pass through $1.1 million to Haggerty for spending on ballot security, with the remaining hundred thousand “washed in” as an actual donation. Haggerty, the prosecution alleged, simply pocketed most of that money without providing the service.

Bloomberg was able to circumvent the state’s campaign-finance laws limiting donations by giving the money to a party housekeeping account and, since it was nominally for the benefit of all the party’s candidates, it was never recorded as an expense by his campaign.

“I have no idea,” Bloomberg said on the stand when asked to name one of his 2009 Independence Party ticket-mates. “It was a long time ago.”

The spending emerged only when the party filed its disclosures in January of 2010, after voters had had their once-every-four-years say.

Two rules, though, govern these uncapped contributions to housekeeping accounts: The giver can’t dictate how the money is spend, and it can’t be spent on behalf of a particular candidate. The defense as such boiled down to: Even if our guy stole the money, he couldn’t have stolen it from Bloomberg because it wasn’t his anymore. The implicit question to the jurors: Do you really want to lock up the little crook for outsmarting the big one?

Jurors seemed to be wrestling with the question during their deliberations, asking Judge Zweibel first to explain who the victim was (Michael Bloomberg, he told them), and then whether they had to consider the identity of the victim in reaching a verdict.

That identity isn’t easy to pin down, which may help explain their decision to acquit Haggerty on the top charge of the indictment, first degree felony theft: It turns out the $1.2 million spent to re-elect Mayor Bloomberg (and the other Independence candidates, of course) hadn’t been drawn from the account of Michael Bloomberg, private citizen, but in fact had been paid out of a separate trust he’d established that was legally separate from him—a distinction that neither the prosecution nor Bloomberg himself on the stand seemed to be aware of. There are a lot of “Bloomberg hats,” as defense attorney Dennis Vacco frequently put it, to keep track of.

On the stand, Bloomberg and his aides said they’d had no significant contact with the state Independence Party during the 2009 campaign. Haggerty, the “volunteer,” had handled the negotiation.

He was “our representative,” said Bloomberg, who testified that he never spoke with party chairman Frank MacKay or anyone else with power in the party before striking what he called “a verbal agreement” with them.

As the Times’ Michael Powell put it: “This means that Mr. Haggerty, the ‘volunteer,’ was bargaining with himself on behalf of the mayor.”

Bloomberg’s “volunteers,” of course, are anything but backroom envelope lickers, and have good reason to expect reward. First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris, who “volunteers” on the side as the head of Bloomberg’s multibillion-dollar family trust, also “volunteered” on the 2009 campaign before signing up full-time just three months out from the election. She was paid $450,000 for her work in those final weeks.

Sheekey, who “volunteered” for the re-election campaign while serving as a deputy mayor in 2009, also ended up with a six-figure reward for signing on at the end, though he couldn’t recall the exact amount on the stand.

Both Sheekey and Harris eschewed titles that year, and referred with some apparent disdain to the nominal “campaign manager,” Bradley Tusk.

(This broad notion of volunteerism was a recurring theme: At one point in the trial, Bloomberg even offered that Stephen Goldsmith, the deputy mayor who left office after he was arrested in a domestic dispute, had “volunteered” to resign.)

One question the defense harped on, and which the mayor and his people danced around, concerned the terms on which his aides were authorized to spend his money on behalf of his political interests, and what money, exactly, they were allowed to spend. That seemed to fit a broader pattern of avoiding paper trails—“Generally I never believed in contracts,” the mayor testified. “I look somebody in the eyes and if they look trustworthy and I believe in them, their handshake is worth more to me than a piece of paper”—and formal titles.

“I can’t answer that yes or no,” said Harris, when the defense asked if she had written authority to cut checks on behalf of her boss. Nor could she remember any particular checks she’d cut on his behalf in the past.

Bloomberg was even more evasive, at one point insisting that a waiver from the toothless Conflict of Interest Board, allowing another City Hall aide to “volunteer” with the “planning and execution of both my formal, public events … as well as smaller private events,” gave her the power to spend his private money on behalf of his political interests.

“If that isn't one of the personal things, I don't know what is, of course,” the mayor said at the end of a testy exchange with defense lawyer Raymond Castello.

Pressed later on the question of whether Harris needed a conflict waiver to spent his private money while “volunteering” for him, Bloomberg shrugged: “I don't believe she would need one for anything she does for me personally. She doesn't do anything that would be a conflict when she works for me.”

Those exchanges seemed to hurt the prosecution while advancing the preferred narratives of both Bloomberg, who left the courtroom with his secrets intact about how his money actually gets spent, and for Haggerty, whose lawyers were able to intimate that the mayor’s spending was untoward. The alleged victim and the accused victimizer seemed to be reading from the same script, parsing words to skirt the plain meaning of the law.

The Independence Party, which has traditionally profited from the confusion of actually “independent” or unaffiliated voters, still has about $100,000 of Bloomberg’s stolen “gift” that it’s never been asked to return, the defense noted. (Presumably, that loose change was the "wash in" that Haggerty referred to in an email to then-deputy mayor Sheekey discussing the transfer). For years, Bloomberg also funneled campaign and “charitable” money to the New York City branch of the party controlled by Lenora Fulani, the lunatic longtime acolyte of recently deceased psychiatrist-cultist Fred Newman. The pair dominated the city party until 2006, and Fulani continues to control its Manhattan branch. Their rented party line proved crucial to Bloomberg’s tight wins in both 2001 and 2009.

Explaining the huge gifts he’s made to party accounts in the context of his professed disdain for partisan politics, Bloomberg again framed his private cash as a public good: “I think we should be supporting parties other than the two major parties because an awful lot of people in the city do not want to belong to any of the two major parties and it's better for the voter to have alternatives.”

(Bloomberg has showered money not just on the Independence Party over the course of his three campaigns, but on the local Republican Party, which has also backed him each time.)

The glossary closes with “ballot security,” the service Haggerty had “volunteered” to provide, and Bloomberg has “donated” more than a million dollars to receive. On the stand, the mayor said that this, too, was a public good his cash provided, “a process to make sure that people that want to vote, have the right to vote, and don't get pushed aside or denied the access to vote.”

His last two Democratic foes saw it in different terms, publicly calling it a means of voter suppression. That’s a loser’s complaint in part—there have been few documented cases of suppression in citywide elections in recent years, and there haven’t been significant instances of fraud, either. But the idea that this expenditure was about safeguarding people’s rights is a hard sale.

Haggerty made his bones in part on still another of New York’s nutty laws: petition challenges that use the state’s absurdly stringent ballot access requirements to push non-party-approved candidates out of races.

“We could have done a lot of good in this society with a million-odd dollars, it's a lot of money,” Bloomberg complained on the stand, as though if not for Haggerty he would have spent it on, say, feeding the hungry.

During closing arguments, as jurors listened first to the defense’s sprawling account of the mayor’s wanton ways amid the murkiness of campaign finance law and then to the prosecution’s simple case about a guy promising to provide a service and instead pocketing the money, one juror wore a red t-shirt with white lettering that seemed oddly matched to the moment. The shirt said, “TRUTH HURTS.’

Bloomberg and Haggerty, his erstwhile agent, can at least agree on that.