NEW YORK (Reuters) - On Monday morning, Justice Ronald Zweibel of state Supreme Court in Manhattan had just begun the process of selecting a jury for the trial of a man accused of stealing more than $1 million.
In a ritual he has performed countless times, Zweibel read a list of possible witnesses to the 92 potential jurors sitting before him and asked whether they had heard of any of them.
Many of the names would be familiar to City Hall junkies, if few others: Kevin Sheekey, the former deputy mayor; Frank MacKay, the chairman of the Independence Party; Patti Harris, the first deputy mayor.
Then Zweibel said, "Michael Bloomberg," and a murmur spread among the crowd as people looked around to make sure they had heard right. Slowly, dozens of hands went up.
That is the dilemma facing Zweibel, as well as prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case of a man accused of stealing $1.2 million from Bloomberg: How do you impanel an impartial jury in New York City when the victim of the alleged crime is the mayor?
And not just any mayor, but Mike Bloomberg -- a billionaire businessman who, over almost a decade at the helm of this blustery, opinionated city of 8 million, has transformed half of Times Square into a pedestrian mall, banned smoking nearly everywhere except in private homes, and succeeded in altering the city's charter so he could run for a third term.
Bloomberg's presence in the courtroom -- in name only for now, though prosecutors say they plan to call him as a witness -- was assured after Republican operative John Haggerty was charged with stealing $1.2 million from Bloomberg during his 2009 reelection bid.
Prosecutors have accused Haggerty of selling the mayor an Election Day poll-watching operation and then keeping the money for himself to buy a house.
PRAISED AND VILIFIED
After the hands were raised, Zweibel conferenced briefly with the lawyers and came up with a new plan of attack.
"Let's do everyone with the exception of Mr. Bloomberg for now," he said, to chuckles from the jury pool. "We'll get to that later."
Jurors who felt they could not render a fair verdict on the case because of their feelings about Bloomberg -- or any of the other potential witnesses -- met individually with the judge and lawyers to explain their concerns.
Eventually, Zweibel excused about a dozen who mentioned personal connections or said their opinions of the mayor were strong enough to color their judgment.
Perhaps the only surprise was that Bloomberg's name didn't evoke a stronger reaction from more jurors. He has been alternately praised and vilified for much of his tenure as mayor -- for example, over the addition of hundreds of miles of bike lanes throughout the city, or his move to change city term-limit laws.
A Quinnipiac poll released last week put the mayor's approval rating among New Yorkers at 54 percent, a marked increase that some observers attributed to the extensive preparations he ordered last month in advance of Hurricane Irene.
Of course, selecting jurors in even the most routine trials can be a challenge. While a handful of potential jurors were excused for their connections to or opinions about Bloomberg, far more were let go because they could not commit to what could be a four-week trial.
By the end of the day, prosecutors and defense attorneys had agreed on just five acceptable jurors from the original pool. On Tuesday morning, Zweibel started the process over again with a new panel of 85 prospective jurors. He said he hopes to be finished by Friday.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)