National News

De Blasio Could End Up a Witness in Case He Sought to Avoid

Posted March 23, 2018 10:28 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — For more than a year, Mayor Bill de Blasio tried his best to distance himself from Harendra Singh, a wealthy donor who was cooperating with federal authorities in a Brooklyn-based corruption investigation of the mayor’s fundraising practices.

But even though Singh pleaded guilty to giving the mayor bribes, the prosecutors handling the inquiry could never prove that de Blasio considered them bribes, and the case was closed.

Now, however, Singh is cooperating in a different bribery trial — that of two Long Island politicians — and on his fourth day on the stand, he testified about bribing de Blasio in extensive, if not quite incriminating, detail.

For weeks before the trial, in a pre-emptive protest of his innocence, the mayor told reporters on the radio and at news conferences that Singh was a liar: someone he barely knew and for whom he certainly did no favors.

But in an ironic legal twist, de Blasio may have protested a bit too much — or perhaps just enough to end up on the witness stand himself.

On Thursday, not for the first time, defense lawyers at the Long Island trial raised the possibility they might call the mayor as their own witness, and have him repeat to a jury the attacks on Singh’s credibility he has made in other public places.

While the defense has not yet subpoenaed de Blasio, such a move could result in the unprecedented spectacle of a sitting New York mayor being hauled into court to describe as dishonest a man who has described him as corrupt.

The actual defendants at the trial, in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, in Central Islip, are Edward Mangano, the onetime Nassau County executive, and John Venditto, the former town supervisor of Oyster Bay, both of whom Singh has already pleaded guilty to bribing.

For much of the week, Singh has been testifying about the men’s alleged misdeeds — among them accusations of accepting thousands of dollars in furniture, plane tickets, discounted limousine rides and other gifts from Singh, in return for helping him get bank loans and county contracts between 2010 and 2014.

As part of his testimony, Singh said on Thursday that he had also improperly raised money for de Blasio to win better terms for a lease on the Water’s Edge, his restaurant on city-owned property in Queens. Earlier this year, de Blasio said he “was thoroughly looked at” by investigators, and that there “were no charges brought because there was nothing there.” On Friday, both the city’s Law Department and de Blasio’s personal lawyer declined to comment on the prospect of him being called as a witness.

If, however, de Blasio does get a subpoena, he would not be the first big-city mayor to be asked to testify at a federal court proceeding. In 2016, two Chicago police officers sought to compel testimony from Mayor Rahm Emanuel after Emanuel spoke about his police department’s code of silence in a speech to the Chicago City Council.

Lawyers for the city tried to block the court appearance, arguing that Emanuel was busy at City Hall and had no “actual and unique knowledge” of the case. They contended it was “absurd to suggest that the mayor of the third largest city in the United States should be required to testify in a case of which he has no personal knowledge.”

Nonetheless, a federal judge ruled against them and ordered Emanuel to testify. It never happened, though, because the case was settled before it went to trial.

In a similar situation, a group of black firefighters who were suing New York City for racial discrimination asked a federal judge in 2009 for permission to depose Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in their case. The judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis, sided with the firefighters and allowed the deposition, ruling that Bloomberg had direct personal knowledge of the matter and that his testimony would not “significantly interfere” with his management of city business.

But mayors — in New York City and elsewhere — have only rarely appeared as witnesses at criminal proceedings. In 1988, Mayor Ed Koch took the stand as a prosecution witness at the federal bribery trial of Bess Myerson, his onetime cultural affairs commissioner. Myerson stood accused of trying to influence a judge in the divorce case of her married boyfriend, Carl A. Capasso, a millionaire sewer contractor. Fidgeting and sighing, Koch showed up in court and told the jury he had “no recollection” of the matter. Myerson was eventually acquitted.

Last year, lawyers for the Lake Boyz, a group of gang members in Fort Myers, Florida, issued a subpoena to the city’s mayor, Randy Henderson, trying to force him to testify about policing practices at their trial. But the subpoena was quashed by the city’s chief lawyer, Grant Alley, who successfully argued to a judge that the city’s manager, not its mayor, was in charge of the police.

Alley, however, noted that things might turn out differently for de Blasio.

“In a criminal case, you have to err on the side of the rights of the criminal defendant,” he said. “If a mayor has relevant information related to a theory of defense, it will be difficult to shield that mayor from a protective order.”