Grand Jury Probe of Mike's Indy Party Bucks Spells a Cuomo Conundrum

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The Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Capitol Tonight are all reporting -- without apparent fear of contradiction -- that a criminal grand jury has been convened to consider charges involving an Independence Party payment of $750,000 last fall to a Queens political operative.

The grand jury comes after a several-month-long look-see by Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance Jr. into the case which is intriguing on several political levels.

For one thing, the case has big star potential since the money in question came from our own Mayor Michael Bloomberg who wrote $1.2 million in checks to the party to help his reelection drive last year. The Journal's Michael Saul's sources state that Bloomberg and his campaign aides "aren't the targets of the investigation." If so, this means the mayor and his first-class campaign team are only looking at first-degree embarrassment, as opposed to felonies (although there is solid ground for their own culpability, as per the detailed walk-through of the appropriate election laws provided here by Wayne Barrett in March).

The current target is allegedly one John Haggerty, a Queens Republican operative who was supposed to have used the money for election day operations. The story was broken back in February by Liz Benjamin and the Post's Dave Seifman. Writing on the Capitol Tonight blog, Benjamin states that the Bloomberg campaign knows only of 200 to 300 poll watchers hired at $500 a head, leaving "the bulk of the $750,000 unaccounted for."

Okay, so this is bad news for Haggerty who is currently floating along the Erie Canal aboard a trawler with his latest client, GOP gubernatorial candidate and email jokester extraordinaire Carl Paladino.

But the more intriguing question raised by this real-life Law and Order story is this: Should state pols -- from Andrew Cuomo on down -- accept the Independence Party nomination given this criminal investigation?

Right now, there is a full-court press underway to get Cuomo and other pols to refuse to accept the nomination of that other small but effective political group, the Working Families Party. The argument here is that the lefty WFP is the subject of its own law enforcement probe, this one by Manhattan federal prosecutors. That investigation stems from allegations that the party broke the rules by funneling money it raised from its mostly union members into political campaigns via a for-profit election outfit. These charges got a pretty good airing in a civil case in Staten Island which resulted in a settlement earlier this year under which the party agreed to change its ways, without admitting wrongdoing.

But that's been enough for the editorial pages of the Post and the Daily News to jump up and down demanding that Cuomo not take the WFP nomination, citing the investigation and other gripes. A Republican-funded group, New Yorkers for Growth, has been pounding out emails on a daily basis making the same demand. Steve Levy, the GOP gubernatorial candidate from Suffolk, has also thrown down the WFP challenge to Cuomo.

The vital subtext here is this: In order to keep its ballot line, a political party must win at least 50,000 votes for its statewide candidate. A refusal by Cuomo to accept the WFP nomination is a likely death sentence for the party. And the Post, News, and GOP are praying to see this spunky decade-old organization, which has been steadily pushing the political envelope in a liberal direction, get the fatal needle.

But Vance's probe raises a new twist, one the tabs might not like so much: If the pro-labor WFP is too tainted due to its ongoing investigation, what about the pro-business Indy Party which has its own explaining to do regarding its apparently fast-and-loose ways with the big money?

Don't count on fair play and a level playing field to make the Indy Party a sudden equal-opportunity target for the Post and News ditto-heads. Their beef with the WFP is really strictly ideological, a case of old-fashioned, straight-out class warfare. (Too crass an analysis, you say? Well, take a peek at the advice to Cuomo offered in yesterday's Post by columnist Michael Goodwin, late of the News' editorial pages: "It will take a war against the unions and their handmaidens to give meaningful progress a chance." That seems pretty clear, I'd say.)

No, the real dilemma here belongs to Cuomo who is going to tell us more about where he's headed as governor by this one decision than any dozen speeches he makes at and after the upcoming Democratic convention.

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