NEW YORK — A political operative accused of cheating Mayor Michael Bloomberg out of $1.1 million slapped together a slipshod budget for the billionaire's campaign because he believed no one cared about the details in a win-at-all-costs environment fostered by mayoral insiders desperate to hold on to power, his lawyer said Tuesday.
In closing arguments, Dennis Vacco said his client John Haggerty was asked to provide the campaign with a loose estimate of costs for a poll-watching operation long after the mayor's 2009 re-election campaign had committed to the plan.
"He knew they weren't going to rely on this budget," the defense attorney told jurors in Manhattan Supreme Court. "Just like a typical government operative ... he just slapped anything together."
Prosecutors argue that the Bloomberg campaign relied on the budget when it made a donation to the state Independence Party to finance the poll-watching effort. Haggerty is accused of mounting only a meager operation costing $32,000, then pocketing most of the mayor's donation to buy a house.
"Mr. Haggerty is a con man," Assistant District Attorney Eric Seidel told jurors in his closing arguments Tuesday. This "was a scam, pure and simple," he said.
On Tuesday, Vacco said Haggerty's $750,000 income for his work as a consultant to the Independence Party on the so-called ballot security effort was lucrative but legitimate.
"It's a lot of money, but it wasn't a crime," he said.
The budget provided by Haggerty days before the election has become a key point in the case. In it, Haggerty outlined plans to pay more than 1,300 poll watchers as well as plans for hotel rooms, office space and more. Few of those expenses ever materialized, prosecutors said. Witnesses have testified that they saw elements of a poll-watching operation in place, but of the four watchers who took the stand, none was paid.
In the prosecution's closing arguments Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Eric Seidel showed jurors an email sent by Haggerty when a New York Post reporter started asking questions months after the election. "Each poll-watcher received $500 for the 16-hour (plus) day," he wrote, claiming that only $100,000 or so remained in the account after the operation's expenses.
"This was a con. It was a scam," Seidel told the jury. "If the reporter hadn't written these articles ... nobody would have known that the defendant stole the money. Because he was trusted."
Haggerty's lawyers have tried to paint a picture of a wealthy candidate who indiscriminately threw his money at problems – a depiction that Bloomberg himself contested on the stand. Vacco argues that if Bloomberg's staffers – several of whom testified – were desperate to win whatever the cost, then Haggerty can't be held accountable for his budget.
"It was a win-at-all-costs campaign for all of them because they saw what was at risk," he said Tuesday. "They were all working for the richest man in the city who was also mayor. And if he lost that race, they would lose that rare combination of political power and the wealth of their benefactor."
After so much trial time spent discussing the mayor's money, the prosecution told jurors on Tuesday that they shouldn't be influenced by the billionaire's wealth.
"The fact that Mayor Bloomberg has a lot of money doesn't make it any less of a crime," Seidel said.
Jason Post, a spokesman for the mayor, said the defense's approach was little more than a smoke screen.
"We heard from the defense what you would expect to hear from a lawyer trying to distract attention from the evidence and the facts," he said in a statement.
Haggerty, 42, is a veteran of several prominent New York Republican campaigns. As a volunteer on the 2009 campaign, Haggerty was put in charge of ballot security, a term used mainly by Republicans for poll watching with an eye to preventing voter fraud. Democrats in New York and elsewhere have long said it's a euphemism for suppressing votes, often in precincts with a large minority population.
Haggerty's lawyers claim that the mayor's campaign was trying to hide its involvement in the project by paying for it through a donation to the Independence Party that wouldn't be reported until after the election was over. The mayor has said the campaign was just following standard procedure.
The defense questioned Tuesday how the mayor could be the victim in the case if the money in question had been given away. In order to convict Haggerty, jurors must find that the mayor's money was stolen.
Samantha Gross can be reached at . www.twitter.com/samanthagross