In NYC trial, the mayor and his money become focus

October 8, 2011 - 3:35 PM
The Mayor and His Money

FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2011 file photo, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses a gathering in New York. New Yorkers are fascinated by the mayor's fortune and the lifestyle that comes with it. His wealth has helped raise Bloomberg's national profile, fed speculation that he would make a self-funded run for the presidency, and provided evidence to voters of the business acumen that was a major rationale for his candidacies. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not on trial.

But the defense in the case of a former operative accused of stealing more than $1 million from the billionaire has turned the focus to him — and to his money.

The lawyers for John Haggerty are drawing on what is a lingering fear for some New Yorkers — that the mayor's wealth and the influence it brings him has handed him too much power. After all, the defense questions, when someone is that rich, can they be forced to play by the same rules as everybody else?

Bloomberg himself says that his money has allowed him to stay above the political fray. After spending more than $250 million of his own money on three mayoral campaigns, he can make decisions unfettered by obligations to donors, he argues. And aides say the campaign salaries he pays means the mayor has no need to hand out appointments as rewards.

The mayor's wealth — estimated at $18.1 billion by Forbes magazine — has both helped and haunted Bloomberg in his political endeavors.

New Yorkers are fascinated by the mayor's fortune and the lifestyle that comes with it. His wealth has helped raise Bloomberg's national profile, fed speculation that he would make a self-funded run for the presidency and provided evidence to voters of the business acumen that was a major rationale for his candidacies.

Polls during Bloomberg's re-election campaigns found that a plurality of voters believed his money freed him from special interests. But a significant minority — hovering around 40 percent in the Quinnipiac University surveys — said the mayor had an unfair advantage and appeared to be trying to buy people's votes.

That grumbling that the mayor bought his office is a common refrain for those who remain unhappy that he successfully pushed to change the city's term-limits law so he could run for a third term, then outspent his opponent more than tenfold to come away with a narrow victory. When some New Yorkers complain that he is out of touch, it can be code for "he's not like us."

And in many ways, he's not. Bloomberg, who according to Forbes is tied for the title of 30th richest person on the planet, owns eight homes around the globe and routinely hires the entire cast of a Broadway show to perform with him at a yearly fundraiser.

New Yorkers must constantly reconcile the mayor who recently pledged $30 million of his money to help the city's young black and Latino men with the magnate who, according to one recent report in The New York Times, owns a couch estimated to be worth $1 million. The conservationist who gives millions of dollars to environmental causes and instituted a plan to cut the city's carbon emissions by nearly a third is also the former executive known to travel the world in a private plane.

At the trial, Haggerty's lawyers have tried to paint the picture of a man who indiscriminately throws his wealth at problems, using it to disguise unsavory campaign practices and skirt election rules while commanding loyalty from an elite group of insiders who get outsized salaries from the mayor and his empire as they rotate in and out of public office. In the midst of all that exceptionalism, their client was made into a scapegoat when a reporter started making inquiries, they claim.

A Bloomberg spokesman denies the allegations and argues that Haggerty, accused of promising a poll-watching operation that he never delivered, is so desperate he will say anything. And with the trial still unfolding, it remains unclear how many of the details being unearthed by the defense are nothing more than a smoke screen.

In one courtroom objection, Assistant District Attorney Eric Seidel complained that Haggerty's lawyers were "trying to focus the jury on everything but what the charges are."

The jurors have had a number of details to keep them entertained — many of them surrounding how different from them the mayor is.

On the stand, Bloomberg told defense lawyers that $1.2 million in contributions to the state Independence Party in 2008 had slipped his mind. He misremembered by $200,000 how much he paid to his most senior deputy mayor when she took a leave of absence to campaign for him a year later. Witnesses spoke about the bevy of people who pay his bills and the few trusted advisers who are authorized to decide how to spend his money.

The mayor himself rejected the idea that he's careless with his funds.

"Until you had all the documentation, nobody in their right mind would send a check," the businessman-turned-politician said on the stand. And he told jurors the loss of the $1.1 million that Haggerty was accused of stealing troubled him because "we could have done a lot of good in society" with it, adding: "It's a lot of money."

With so much cash on hand, Bloomberg does wield power differently from his predecessors. He has rewarded politicians who support his agenda with significant donations; he's stepped up with his own money when dwindling public resources can't cover programs; he's paid millions of dollars of his own money to run ads promoting his agenda when his poll numbers were down — even though he wasn't running for re-election.

Mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser scoffed at the idea that the mayor's money creates an imbalance of power in the city.

"When exactly was the level playing field ever level in New York?" he wrote in an email. "The Democratic primary system in New York City, with its reliance on local political clubs, county party apparatuses, and labor unions, is sharply skewed against anyone but career politicians." And in New York, he said, the Democratic primary often decides the election.

Still, good-government advocates have raised concerns about the way Bloomberg's philanthropic foundation compounds his power.

"This is a mayor who uses his significant philanthropy efforts to back his public policy determinations," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. Many New Yorkers are glad to see the impact of the mayor's giving, Lerner said, but she noted that when he uses private money to fund programs meant to benefit the city, he is not accountable to taxpayers for the results.

Organizations throughout the city are very aware that they are in competition for the mayor's money, said Baruch College politics professor Doug Muzzio.

"It has silenced potential critics," he said. "You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you."

Haggerty's lawyers have questioned whether the same dynamic is present for the current and former denizens of City Hall.

The mayor, they say, is surrounded by a coterie of insiders who move between city jobs and positions at his foundation, the company he founded and his campaigns — often getting huge payouts when they temporarily or permanently step away from their public jobs. And Haggerty's lawyers have questioned whether these loyalists are loyal to the man or to the laws of the city he runs.

"Mr. Bloomberg has paid or is paying large sums of money to almost every witness who is testifying," said Raymond Castello, one of the defense lawyers.

It is senseless to question "loyalty to the city versus the mayor," said Jason Post, a former City Hall spokesman who's now on the mayor's private payroll, hired to speak on his behalf about the trial. "They are the same because the people elect the mayor to run the city. What is the conflict?"

Former state Attorney General Dennis Vacco, a political insider himself and one of Haggerty's lawyers, argues that the mayor's own concerns about the power of the dollar should give him pause.

"He seems to have made a very clear distinction between contributions that he's unwilling to accept because of the influence that those contributions (can have) — or, at least, the appearance of an influence. But yet he seemingly hasn't made the same distinction about the contributions that he makes," he said.

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Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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