Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
By JENNIFER PELTZ
NEW YORK (AP) - A political operative convicted of bamboozling Mayor Michael Bloomberg out of hundreds of thousands of dollars was sentenced to prison Monday un a case that brought the billionaire politician to the witness stand and gave the public a behind-the-scenes look at his campaign and City Hall.
John Haggerty agreed to pay $750,000 in restitution to Bloomberg in addition to his prison term of 1 1/3 to 4 years.
Haggerty, a veteran Republican campaign consultant, was convicted in October after a trial that jurors called a crash course in the workings of politics. Besides the business-mogul-turned-mayor, the case drew in the state's third-largest political party and featured a coterie of Bloomberg insiders sketching their roles in his political, philanthropic and business affairs.
"Since starting my career, I've worked hard to make a reputation in the world of politics and government as a dedicated, honorable individual. Today, my reputation is destroyed," Haggerty told the judge in a strong voice. "If I could do it all over again, I would certainly do it much differently than I did."
He walked out of court briskly, without handcuffs, after state Supreme Court Justice Ronald Zweibel pronounced a sentence he said he felt necessary "to restore the public's confidence in the electoral process and to serve as a deterrent." Haggerty's lawyers said they planned to ask an appeals court to let him out on bail during a planned appeal.
The Manhattan district attorney's office said Haggerty conned Bloomberg into putting up $1.1 million for an elaborate 2009 poll-monitoring effort by presenting aides with a detailed budget, complete with everything from two-way radios to some 1,300 paid poll watchers.
The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-unaffiliated Bloomberg was then running for a third term. He provided the "ballot security" money through a personal donation to the state Independence Party, which boasted him as its marquee candidate.
Haggerty mounted a meager operation, spending only about $32,000 on it, and pocketed $750,000 of the mayor's money to buy a house, prosecutors said. Haggerty later concocted a few phony poll-watcher pay stubs to try to cover his tracks, prosecutors said.
"He promised things that he didn't do," Bloomberg said during his calm but wary turn on the stand. Other witnesses said they saw elements of a poll-watching initiative, but the four watchers who testified said they weren't paid.
Haggerty's lawyers said the mayor and party got what they paid for - results. The defense painted a picture of a free-spending campaign determined to win, unconcerned about the details of where money went, unafraid to bend campaign-finance rules and eager to distance itself from Haggerty's operation because it might be seen as unsavory.
One of Haggerty's lawyers, former state Attorney General Dennis Vacco, tried to paint Haggerty as man whose judgment was clouded by his emotional investment in buying the home where he had grown up - and who found himself in the thick of a win-at-all-costs campaign.
"When you're spending $100 million to win a third a term as the mayor of the City of New York, I think that you unwittingly cause others to, you know, kind of start thinking outside the box," Vacco said outside court. "It breeds an environment where people start losing judgment."
Vacco had argued to jurors that the Bloomberg camp routed the money through the Independence Party - which didn't have to report the contribution until after the election - to veil the campaign's involvement with "ballot security," a practice that has caused partisan friction for decades. Republicans say it's about preventing voter fraud; Democrats say it's a proxy for suppressing minority votes.
The mayor said he believed he was just financing an effort to make sure eligible voters weren't turned away. Still, his 2009 campaign manager acknowledged he'd worried that the ballot-security initiative could look bad to the public.
While Haggerty's payout was big, it was legitimate, Vacco said. But the consultant became a fall guy after a New York Post reporter started asking questions about the mayor's contribution to the Independence Party, he said.
Haggerty, 42, had grown up in the shadow of a father and namesake who was himself a powerful political operative and a mother who died when he was 15, Vacco told the judge. In trying to buy the family home in an upscale part of Queens, Haggerty was "grasping to hang onto a semblance of family," said Vacco, who has known Haggerty since 1993.
But Assistant District Attorney Eric Seidel retorted that if Haggerty needed money to buy the house, he should have tried to find financing.
"Instead, he stole the money," Seidel said.
Haggerty will sell the house to pay the mayor back.
"Haggerty's fraudulent and cynical misconduct has now been punished, and his ill-gotten gains forfeited," District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement.
Authorities didn't accuse Bloomberg or his campaign of any wrongdoing. His representatives have said they viewed poll-watching as a party's job, rather than a candidate's. Bloomberg said he paid for it personally because the operation was meant to benefit all the party's candidates, not just him.
A Bloomberg spokesman declined to comment on the sentence.
The case has proven costly for the Independence Party, an H. Ross Perot-inspired group that counts more than 434,000 voters statewide.
The party wasn't charged with any crimes, but prosecutors have said in a lawsuit that its leaders knew or should have known about Haggerty's scheme. The lawsuit prompted a civil court judge to freeze one of the party's accounts last winter to prevent it from spending about $200,000 that remained of the mayor's money.
The party has agreed to give up $150,000, with $50,000 more going to pay its legal fees, prosecutors said Monday. The party had already spent about $150,000 more of the money it got from the mayor and won't have to give that back - a deal that got dim reviews from Zweibel, who told prosecutors they "could have held (the party) to" giving it up.
The party has said it did nothing wrong and knew nothing about the alleged scam.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)