NEW YORK -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't try to hide that he was financing a poll-monitoring operation during his 2009 re-election campaign, a former top aide testified Tuesday at the trial of a political operative charged with bilking the mayor out of more than $1 million.
Bloomberg paid for the "ballot security" initiative indirectly, through a $1.2 million personal donation to the state Independence Party. The party then hired veteran Republican consultant John Haggerty, who had outlined an extensive ballot security plan for Bloomberg campaign leaders. Prosecutors say the operation never materialized, and Haggerty used most of the money instead to buy a house.
Haggerty denies the allegations, and his lawyers are striving to raise questions about Bloomberg's campaign finances – questions they posed Tuesday to former Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey.
Haggerty's attorneys say Bloomberg's campaign wanted to distance itself from ballot security because some see the practice as a way to suppress votes, often from minority voters. Others say it is merely about keeping an eye on the polls and any voter-eligibility problems or other difficulties that may arise.
"Your ultimate goal was to get ballot security without having the campaign's fingerprints on it, isn't that so?" Haggerty lawyer Dennis Vacco asked Sheekey.
Sheekey said the donation appeared on the Independence Party's finance reports, which came out after the election, and that it quickly became public that the money was for ballot security.
"I don't think that rises to your `no fingerprints'" concept, Sheekey said.
He also rebuffed defense suggestions that the arrangement disguised a campaign expense as a political gift, saying it was indeed a donation that was meant to do more than help the mayor.
"The mayor made a personal contribution to the state party for the party to undertake activities on Election Day that would benefit that candidate (himself) and all candidates," Sheekey said.
Vacco noted that Bloomberg previously had encountered criticism regarding ballot security. His 2005 Democratic opponent, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, complained publicly that the practice was a tool for suppressing votes.
Sheekey called the complaint "hogwash."
"A lot of Democrats often try to inject race into a campaign," he said. "It's not uncommon for candidates, more often Democratic candidates than Republicans in New York, to allege that ballot security is something that it's not," he added.
State Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs later said in a statement: "Republican ballot security efforts have long been recognized as an effort to suppress the vote in minority and high Democratic performing areas. To allege otherwise defies reality".
The Democratic National Committee sued its Republican counterpart 30 years ago over the GOP's ballot security efforts, claiming Republicans tried to intimidate minority voters by posting armed ballot watchers in selected New Jersey polling places. In a 1982 consent decree, Republicans admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to refrain from any future "ballot security activities ... where racial or ethnic composition" was a factor.
The first two days of the trial have offered an unusual peek behind the scenes of Bloomberg's high-rolling political campaigns and into the lives of the loyalists who make up his inner circle.
First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris, another longtime employee, testified Tuesday that she had the permission to authorize use of the mayor's personal funds and had required that Haggerty give her a detailed breakdown of his budget and plans for ballot security – including his plan to hire more than 1,300 poll watchers – before she approved the donation.
Former state Attorney General Dennis Vacco, himself a political insider and now one of Haggerty's lawyers, asked Harris repeatedly whether she had written proof of her authority to spend the mayor's personal money.
"I just wouldn't characterize it that way," she said, later explaining that after years of working with the mayor, "mutual trust was created."
The defense has argued that prosecutors can't prove that the money was stolen from Bloomberg because the mayor's donation to the party could not legally be earmarked for a specific purpose.
In court on Tuesday, Vacco continued to drive home the point that the billionaire mayor is set apart by his wealth and status – complaining to the judge that the mayor had privately hired a spokesman to sit in court and speak to the press even while the lawyers in the case have been fettered by a gag order.
"Unlike most other victims, he has a paid PR person in the courtroom putting spin on" the proceedings, Vacco said.
Justice Ronald Zweibel responded by lifting the gag order so that all parties can again speak to the press.
"I think this will level the playing field," he said.