NEW YORK (AP) - It's a case of political intrigue that puts New York's billionaire mayor in the unlikely role of victim, froze a political party's bank account and splashed light on the inner workings of a $109 million mayoral campaign.
In short, the upcoming trial of a campaign operative charged with stealing $1.2 million from Mayor Michael Bloomberg promises to be can't-miss drama for political junkies, if an awkward episode for a mayor who likes to be seen as above the political fray.
Jury selection is set to start Monday for Republican consultant John Haggerty's criminal trial, which could feature Bloomberg as its star witness. He's on prosecutors' witness list, though it's unclear whether he actually will be called to testify, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss aspects of the case not yet made public.
Whether the mayor appears or not, "people are going to be interested in the story and sort of drawing back the curtain to see how the wizard operates," Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said.
Prosecutors say Haggerty got then-candidate Bloomberg to underwrite an elaborate 2009 poll-watching effort, but then mounted a meager operation and used most of the money instead to buy himself a house. Haggerty says he did the job he was paid for and didn't do anything illegal.
If the outlines of the allegations are simple, the case has some sticky complexities. The initiative was financed through Bloomberg donations to the state Independence Party, which boasted him as its top candidate.
While no one involved is accusing Bloomberg of doing anything unlawful, one of Haggerty's lawyers has suggested the mayor's campaign chose a roundabout way of funding the so-called ballot security effort to avoid associating itself with the practice, which has at times been criticized and subjected to federal court scrutiny, as an alleged tool for suppressing unfavorable votes. A civil court judge has told the Independence Party, which hasn't been criminally charged and says it did nothing wrong, that its conduct "doesn't smell right."
So the stakes are high not only for Haggerty, who could face up to 25 years in prison, but for the party and mayor. Bloomberg faces the possibility of being publicly questioned about his campaign finances, a particularly unappealing prospect for a mayor who has emphasized that he pays for his own campaigns in order to stand apart from the murk of money in politics.
"It has the potential to be embarrassing for City Hall because there's no doubt that the mayor cannot distance himself completely from this situation, and, as a result, it may tarnish his image," Fordham University political science professor Costas Panagopoulos said.
Prosecutors have asked the judge to bar Haggerty's lawyers from asking about the campaign's workings, saying in an Aug. 30 letter that the issue is irrelevant and would confuse jurors. Haggerty's lawyers wrote back Friday that prosecutors are trying to limit his right to defend himself. The judge has yet to rule.
A City Hall spokesman declined to comment on the Haggerty case. A judge has ordered prosecutors and defense lawyers not to talk about it.
Haggerty, 42, is a veteran of prominent New York campaigns, including that of former Gov. George Pataki.
As the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-unaffiliated Bloomberg ran for a third term in 2009, his campaign tapped Haggerty for his expertise on ballot security - keeping an eye on voter eligibility and other measures meant to prevent fraud.
Working as a volunteer, Haggerty presented Bloomberg campaign officials with a roughly $1.1 million budget that included a seven-person staff, more than 1,350 paid poll-watchers, Election Day drivers and two-way radios. He arranged for the mayor to give the Independence Party $1.2 million to finance it all, prosecutors said. The H. Ross Perot-inspired party counts more than 425,000 voters statewide.
"Just about every one of these numbers prepared by (Haggerty) and given to the members of the Bloomberg team was a lie," Manhattan assistant district attorney Eric Seidel said at a February hearing. "This was a carefully thought-out plan by a pro who figured he'd never get caught."
The money was given in the week before Election Day. Officials have said Bloomberg's gift was for ballot security on behalf of all the party's hopefuls, not particularly him as its premier candidate.
The Independence Party hired Haggerty for the task and paid him $750,000. But only about $32,000 went to the ballot security work, prosecutors said. Haggerty pocketed the money instead, later creating bogus check stubs to show a handful of poll-watcher payments after a New York Post reporter started asking questions, prosecutors said.
Haggerty's lawyers say the party and Bloomberg got their money's worth. They also say it doesn't make legal sense to claim the money was stolen from Bloomberg when he had given it away.
"The $1.2 million was a contribution. And once the (Independence) Party has it, they're entitled to do whatever they want with it," one of his attorneys, former state Attorney General Dennis Vacco, said at the February hearing.
Nonetheless, he added, the Bloomberg campaign "chose a less transparent way of funding ballot security," perhaps to skirt the "stigma" associated with it.
Ballot security has been a loaded term since the Democratic National Committee sued its Republican counterpart 30 years ago over the GOP's ballot security efforts. Democrats claimed Republicans sought to intimidate minority voters by posting armed ballot watchers in selected New Jersey polling places.
The case produced a 1982 consent decree in which Republicans admitted no wrongdoing and agreed to refrain from any future "ballot security activities ... where racial or ethnic composition" was a factor.
On the sidelines of the Haggerty case, the Independence Party is grappling with its own fallout.
While the party isn't charged, prosecutors have said in a lawsuit that the party knew or should have known about Haggerty's alleged scam. The lawsuit seeks to force the party and Haggerty to forfeit the money he allegedly stole; for now, the suit has prompted a civil court judge to freeze one of the party's accounts last winter.
Chairman Frank MacKay says he expects one side or the other will call him to testify at Haggerty's trial.
"I look forward to getting our story out," MacKay said Friday.