Talk to G.O.P. political operatives, or customers sitting at some of the Irish bars in eastern Queens, or even former aides from the Bloomberg re-election campaign, and they will tell you that the last person they expected to in the dock at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, accused of stealing over $1 million from Mayor Mike Bloomberg, is John Haggerty.
But there he was Monday morning, surrounded by a team of lawyers—including former New York State attorney general Dennis Vacco, a longtime friend and mentor—staring without expression as prosecutors submitted into evidence what they say are falsified budgets, bogus checks and deceit-laden memos that showed that Mr. Haggerty lied to the campaign about his plans for an Election Day ballot security operation. He did so, they say, in order to help himself to some of the mayor’s millions in order to buy out his brother in the Haggerty family home that had been left by his late father. They portrayed him as a political hack, as someone insecure and needy and thirsty for recognition from higher-ups in Team Bloomberg. They made a note of his bragging that he was better at making sure voters got to the polls than anybody else hanging around the campaign offices.
And on this last point, at least, there seems to be very little doubt. Mr. Haggerty is known in political circles as one of the “Jedi Masters”—one of the very small group of experts so versed in the nuts and bolts of New York’s arcane election law that he has been one of the most sought-after campaign operatives in the state for the last decade and a half. And of that small group, he is perhaps the only one who is single-handedly able to put together all of the pieces of a campaign, including printing petitions, organizing a petition drive, binding the petitions, filing objections to an opponent’s petitions and drafting the legal proceedings.
“John is the field guy, the organizer,” said one fellow Queens political operative. “And he is very, very, very good in an area that it is very very hard. It takes connections, it takes hard work and it takes knowing the right people, and John Haggerty does that in a place that is very very challenging [for Republicans.]”
His knowledge of the field is so authoritative that people who have worked on campaigns with Mr. Haggerty say that they always assumed that he was a lawyer. In fact, he is someone who grew up breathing the air of old-school Republican politics. His father, Jack Haggerty was one of the most powerful staffers in Albany as chief counsel to Warren Anderson, the Senate majority leader in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He later went on to lead the Queens County Republican Party. Mr. Haggerty’s mother died when he was a teenager, and Mario Cuomo—an old family friend from the time when the elder Mr. Haggerty was a young Brooklyn lawyer—went to the funeral. Young John handed out leaflets for local races when he was a kid, at 19 was the youngest delegate for the Republican National Convention that nominated George H.W. Bush for president in 1988. He went to Fordham, studied economics and played water polo, volunteered for Rudy Giuliani’s first campaign for governor, and later went to work on the campaign of Ned Regan, the last Republican comptroller of New York State. After Mr. Regan won, Mr. Haggerty joined his staff, traveling the state and dealing with political concerns—a job that helped him develop a reputation as someone who seems to be able to drive every highway and byway in New York with his eyes closed. From there, Mr. Haggerty went to work for the State Assembly Republicans, where he made connections to a number of rising stars in the state G.O.P., including Tom Reynolds, later a U.S. Congressman, and George Pataki.
In 1994, when the rest of the political talent in New York went to go work on electing Mr. Pataki governor, Mr. Haggerty helped lead the effort to elect Mr. Vacco attorney general, before eventually returning to the Pataki fold to help the governor fend of petition challenges from Tom Golisano in his 2002 re-election race.
Although Mr. Haggerty is a true-believer conservative, friends say he got swept-up in the re-election campaign of Mike Bloomberg in 2005, thrilled to see another Republican—even if he was an avowed moderate—get re-elected in New York City. According to some of the dozen or so friends and associates of Mr. Haggerty interviewed for this article, the two became friendly, and Mr. Haggerty used to regale colleagues with bawdy jokes he shared with the mayor.
If these stories don’t square with the portrayal that Bloomberg campaign aides are now putting out on the stand, it is not the only piece of the trial that deviates from the Mr. Haggerty that many people in political circles say they know. To them, Mr. Haggerty is someone so private that they never once recall him talking about his private life, and in fact even kept his wedding under wraps. He is “the choir boy,” in the words of one friend, who can be found every Sunday in the pews of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Forest Hills, someone whose primary interest—outside of politics—is his Irish roots (He is obsessed with U2, and chides friends who drive English automobiles).
“He is an old-school kind of operative, and a very honorable guy,” said Eric Ulrich, a Queens City Councilmember. “He is loyal to a fault, and he is one of the very few people in this business who, when he shakes your hand, it means something.”
Over and over again, those who know him used those two words to describe him—“honor” and “old school.” Republican campaigns value him because he is one of the last remaining political operatives who remembers to make the courtesy call to county chairs when the candidate visits the state, and who often works without compensation. “I don’t blow sunshine around about anybody, but John Haggerty is somebody I trust with my life and I would give all of my credit cards,” said Michael Caputo, who brought on Mr. Haggerty to the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Carl Paladino. “Money appears to be nothing to the guy.” For that campaign, Mr. Caputo brought on Mr. Haggerty even though an indictment loomed “because it was clear to me that he was the best at what he does.
“We made the decision that the upside was far greater than the downside,” he recalled. “We could walk away from a good man and get nowhere near the show.”
Instead, Mr. Haggerty was given the Herculean task of getting Mr. Paladino the nomination of both the Conservative and Republican parties, even though most of the political establishment lined up behind his opponent, Rick Lazio. Once that happened, according to Mr. Caputo, Mr. Haggerty’s assignment was to keep Mr. Paladino’s worst instincts from exploding all over the front page.“He was always the one saying, ‘Hold your fire, don’t blow it, this is going to come our way,’” Mr. Caputo recalled. “Carl listened to John Haggerty, and Carl didn’t listen to anyone. If we needed Carl to crawl down from the ceiling, John was the guy to tell him.”
Friends say that Mr. Haggerty has also been known to harbor the occasional grudge. He and his brother Bart Haggerty have waged an all-out war against the current leadership of the Queens Republican Party, whom they accuse of trying to use the party for their own enrichment. The battle has involved a court case, negative mailers against the Haggertys, and now, a Haggerty ally claiming to be the actual leader of the party.
On this, even loyal friends are baffled.
“I don’t know what that is all about,” said one friend. “It’s like the Irish alzheimer’s—you forget about everything but the grudge. I don’t even think John remembers what it’s about any more.”
As his name has been dragged through the tabloid mud since word of the district attorney’s investigation first broke early last year, Mr. Haggerty has tried to keep a low-profile and move on with his life, mindful of the what his presence can mean for any political campaigns who may want to hire him. In the Paladino race, he tried to keep as low a profile as possible. He was recently spotted outside the victory party for newly-elected congressman Bob Turner. He has declined to talk about the trial, but has told friends that he could never accept a deal, not one that would leave him with prison time.
“He really feels like he never did anything wrong, and he knows that if he pleads guilty, he will never live it down,” one said. “He feels like he is a young guy and still has a lot of his career ahead of him.
At the courthouse, Mr. Haggerty avoided the reporters hanging out in the back of the hallway, chatting quietly and joking with his lawyers during breaks in the trial. Photographers have been barred from the hallway outside the courtroom, since the judge was fearful that their presence could prejudice the jurors. They staked Mr. Haggerty outside the courthouse instead. On his way out on Monday, Mr. Haggerty started to walk past them, but paused for a moment and stood still, letting them get their shots in.
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