Puritan Avenue in Queens leads through Forest Hills Gardens, a serene enclave in the city, where 100-year-old homes evoke the English countryside. At the corner of Puritan and Greenway North, shaded by an expansive beech tree, is a $1.8 million brick Tudor. Unlike the immaculate neighboring lots, the grounds on this house aren’t particularly well tended: Weeds have sprouted, the grass is dry and bricks on the steps have fallen loose.
There would be no way of knowing from the outside that this house is at the center of one of the biggest unfolding scandals of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection-or that hundreds of thousands of dollars of the mayor’s own money ended up here, in what appears to have been intentional skirting of city and state campaign-finance-disclosure laws.
The house belongs to John F. Haggerty Jr., an enigmatic Republican political consultant now facing criminal charges for allegedly stealing money from the mayor. Although it is Mr. Haggerty who may do time, the mayor’s actions deserve more scrutiny than they’ve received so far. An extensive review of records and campaign documents by The Observer, as well as interviews with witnesses, indicate that Mr. Bloomberg funneled money to Mr. Haggerty, who claimed to be a “volunteer,” sidestepping the political committee the mayor had promised to use to finance his election campaign. By deploying Mr. Haggerty and an unrelated political party, the the mayor’s team avoided drawing attention to a controversial election day tactic. But even more serious, experts say Bloomberg may have broken campaign finance laws.
The Observer found that Mr. Haggerty’s 2009 efforts for Bloomberg weren’t an isolated case: similar tactics were deployed in the mayor 2005 campaign. In both races the Mayor’s private funds were quietly routed to Mr. Haggerty.
Just as intriguing, as the criminal case moves forward against Mr. Haggerty, it appears that authorities are not investigating the mayor or his aides, in spite of evidence of possible legal violations.
It is one thing for a billionaire to run the most expensive private campaign in US history, spending a record $109 million. But it is something else to intentionally flout, if not break, financial disclosure laws in the process.
ON JUNE 14, Cyrus Vance, Manhattan’s new district attorney, announced the five-count indictment of Mr. Haggerty. Sparked by a story in the New York Post, which noticed unusually large payments from the mayor to the scrappy New York State Independence Party, Mr. Vance argued that the Republican operative had “falsely represented to Mayor Bloomberg’s agents and campaign workers that he would arrange for nearly $1.1 million to be spent on an Election Day ballot security and poll watching operation, to be run through the New York State Independence Party.”
At 41 years old, John Haggerty is considered one of the city’s most adroit backroom Republican fixers. Officially, though, he was only an unpaid “volunteer” during Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection push. “He said he didn’t want to get paid because he didn’t want to be owned by anybody,” one Bloomberg worker told The Observer. Volunteer or not, Mr. Haggerty had the mayor’s ear and spent long hours with the campaign’s war council, including Kevin Sheekey, Patricia Harris and Bradley Tusk.
“Ballot security” operations have a long and sometimes tainted history. At best, they are designed to uncover potential fraud by challenging suspect voters. But, quite often, civil rights historians say, ballot security is a euphemism for voter suppression, particularly within minority and low-income populations. Tactics include in-your-face ID checks, aggressive challenges of voter registration and invasive demands for proof of residency or address.
While the mayor’s camp decided it ‘needed a substantial ballot security operation’ to fend off his opponent, there was some concern that ‘ballot security could be construed as racist.’
In 1981, for instance, the Republican Party in New Jersey employed signs labeled: “WARNING THIS AREA IS BEING PATROLLED BY THE NATIONAL BALLOT SECURITY TASK FORCE”; later, the party was sued for harassment.
In the fall of 2009, Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign faced a tough challenge from Democrat Bill Thompson, the city’s African-American controller. While the mayor’s camp decided it “needed a substantial ballot security operation” to fend off his opponent, as one campaign official told The Observer, there was some concern that “ballot security could be construed as racist.”
Mr. Haggerty was one of the few people in New York who could pull off such an operation. To get around the red flags raised by the scheme, the campaign and Mr. Haggerty came up with an elaborate plan to obscure his involvement. According to Mr. Haggerty’s lawyer, Dennis Vacco, Mr. Bloomberg funded Mr. Haggerty’s work by completely bypassing his “Bloomberg for Mayor 2009 Inc.” committee and wired $1.2 million from his personal accounts, in two installments, as a “donation” to the tiny Independence Party.
Specifically, the money went to the party’s “Housekeeping Account,” which is exempt from contribution limits. (While Mr. Bloomberg did not disclose the payments, the party later did.) According to the indictment, the unwritten agreement between Mr. Bloomberg and the Independence Party was that Mr. Haggerty would be paid $1.1 million to oversee ballot security; the leftover $100,000 was meant as a kind of handling fee for the party to keep.
Mr. Haggerty accepted the money through an entity called “Special Election Operations, LLC”-unincorporated until later.