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Testy Mayor Stays Cool on the Stand, Avoiding Potential Fallout

By Jill Colvin | October 4, 2011 11:24pm
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg enters a news conference to discuss a new terrorist threat on September 8, 2011 in New York City.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg enters a news conference to discuss a new terrorist threat on September 8, 2011 in New York City.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — It doesn’t take much to rile Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose short temper is legendary.

So when defense attorneys for John Haggerty, the political operative accused of ripping off the mayor for more than $1 million, had their chance to cross-examine the city's top man Monday, they lobbed just about every grenade they could muster: the botched CityTime project, a resignation scandal, and the controversy over his third term.

But unlike his notoriously patronizing tone during previous testimony, this time the mayor bit his tongue, saving him from any of the political backlash he’d potentially exposed himself to by taking the stand, observers said.

“If the defense tried to take down the mayor, they failed,” said expert political consultant George Arzt, who served as press secretary to former Mayor Ed Koch, who was also forced to testify as a witness while in office.

While they may have tried their darndest, "the lawyers couldn't rile him," he said.

Haggerty is accused of pockering a $1.1 million donation from the mayor to the New York State Independence Party, which was intended to be spent on ballot security during the mayor's 2009 re-election campaign.

But so far, much of the defense’s questioning has focused on the inner workings of the Bloomberg campaign and administration, with lawyers trying to paint a picture of an office where public and private interests blur and huge sums of money pass hands with very little oversight.

On Monday, Haggerty’s attorney, Raymond Castello, turned his sights on the mayor, bombarding him for more than two hours with questions that veered from the circumstances surrounding his donations to the Independence Party, to a host of other sore spots, intended to undermine his credibiliy and — it seems — to make him mad.

During one line of questioning about whether the mayor had personally demanded that Haggerty return his money, for instance, Castello, brought up CityTime, the payroll project that has been marred with contractor scandal.

Castello later questioned the Mayor’s honesty, citing the recent controversy surrounding the resignation of Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who stepped down in August after he was arrested following a domestic dispute with his wife.

The Mayor’s Office did not disclose the reason for Goldsmith’s departure at the time.

“You made a public statement that was untrue about his resignation, is that true?” Castello charged.

“Judge, I can anticipate a line of questioning that makes a good theater, but it's not relevant," Assistant District Attorney Eric Seidel objected.

Castello was equally as antagonistic throughout the proceedings.

"Maybe you can answer my question, Mr. Bloomberg,” he said mid-way through.

“I don’t like it if he doesn’t answer my questions,” he later pushed.

Despite the heated provocations, the mayor remained cool — and even polite — throughout the examination, offering “you’re welcome”s to “thank you”s  and answering terse demands for answers with “I’d be happy to"s.

And while it may have been an exercise in self-control, veteran Democratic Consultant Hank Sheinkopf said the strategy worked and that the mayor emerged from his testimony unscathed.

“If anything, his positives have increased,” said Sheinkop, who added that the defense's attempts at trying to make the mayor's staff look incompetent have also done minimal demage to the administration.

Arzt said that the defense’s argument that the Mayor broke election rules by trying to dictate how a political contribution was spent also likely won’t end up hurting the mayor.

“How many principals of campaigns really understand campaign finance law?” he said. "No one expects the mayor to know what the money is used for in the end."

A spokesman for the mayor, Jason Post, said the mayor, who has immunity from prosecution, did nothing wrong.