“State your full name,” the Federal District Court clerk in Manhattan asked.
“John Vliet Lindsay.”
“John Vliet, capital Vliet, Lindsay,” the mayor of New York City replied.
“Capital V-l-i-e-t,” the witness retorted icily.
It is unusual for mayors of New York City to be summoned to the witness stand. So whenever it happens all the familiar formalities take on a starkly different tone. Suddenly, the legal arcana, courtroom theatrics and judicial niceties are bathed in a political veneer.
After all, the judge and the jurors may well have voted for the witness — or against him. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will get his moment on Monday, when he is scheduled to testify in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.
Past mayors have been called on behalf of plaintiffs, prosecutors and defendants, as character witnesses, occasionally as defendants, and, in Mr. Bloomberg’s case, as the victim of what the Manhattan district attorney maintains was the theft of $1 million in campaign funds by a political consultant.
“We don’t believe there’s ever been a case in which a sitting mayor was a victim of a crime like this,” Stu Loeser, the mayor’s chief spokesman said.
Mr. Bloomberg, however, is no rookie when it comes to the witness stand.
In 2003, he emerged from testifying in another case in which he was being extorted — though the case predated his being elected mayor — and took part in a potentially dangerous sting operation. “It wasn’t exactly James Bond,” Mr. Bloomberg joked at the time, “but if you characterize it that way, there’s a lot of similarity between Sean Connery and myself.”
If Mr. Bloomberg was a hero in that case, this time the defense will attempt to paint him as an incumbent intent on “winning at all costs,” according to Raymond R. Castello, the lawyer for the accused political consultant, John F. Haggerty Jr.
In 1932, Mayor James J. Walker memorably sparred from the witness stand with Samuel Seabury, the head of a state committee investigating municipal corruption.
Under at times withering questioning from Judge Seabury, Mayor Walker displayed injured pride, humility, indignation, rapier wit and defiance in what turned into a popularity contest. When he was accused of making a speech, he replied: “Well, they’re not so bad. Did you ever listen to any of them?”
Had he ever shaken hands with a certain financier? “I do shake hands with a great many people I don’t know,” he replied “and try to make them believe I do.”
When he complained that the interrogation was keeping him from pressing mayoral duties, one observer described it as “the first time anyone had ever heard Mayor Walker complain that he had to leave the center of any stage to go to work.”
It was under wholly different circumstances — testimony involving a 1972 lawsuit over subsidized housing — that Mr. Lindsay attempted to spell his middle name.
Few officials, however, can match Edward I. Koch’s record of court appearances as a witness.
As a freshman congressman, he testified as a character witness on behalf of a colleague, Bertram L. Podell. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” the prosecutor, Rudolph W. Giuliani began, but hadn’t Mr. Koch testified similarly on behalf of another congressman who was recently convicted?
“They say what is the person’s reputation,” Mr. Koch recalled. “So I gave their reputation and they were both conficted.”
Mr. Koch was unfazed, though. “Even then,” Michael B. Mukasey, a member of the prosecutorial team recalled last week, “ Koch was larger than life and he left the courtroom through the well of the court shaking hands.”
Mr. Koch testified in a suit brought by Dr. Michael M. Baden, the city’s chief medical examiner, whom Mr. Koch had fired. Yes, he had appointed Dr. Baden, adding, though: “I made an initial mistake — I was correcting it.”
Two of Mr. Koch’s most noteworthy turns on the witness stand occurred during the trial of a doctor accused of punching him and assaulting him with an egg during a protest against hospital budget cuts, and the trial of Bess Myerson, his former consumer affairs commissioner, who was accused of hiring a judge’s daughter to influence her lover’s divorce settlement.
“I’m on the stand and the attorney for the doctor says to me, ‘You don’t really know who struck you, the person was to the rear of you,’ ” Mr. Koch recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes I do,’ and turned my chair to the jury, and said: ‘What happened, ladies and gentlemen, was I standing at the lectern and I feel a hand on my neck and a fist in my eye and something liquid coming down my cheek and felt, ‘I’m going to be assassinated,’ and fought for my life. I threw him to the ground, and sat on him and I looked at his face.’ ”
Then, pointing to the defendant, Mr. Koch said: “That’s him.”
“Who knows what impact my testimony had,” he added. “I can’t get into their heads, but I assume they were fascinated by the story. The doctor was convicted and got a $1,000 fine and 30 days, which for attempting to assassinate a mayor is big time in New York City.”
The Myerson case was more problematic. Mr. Koch was called by Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the United States attorney in Manhattan, to testify against Ms. Myerson, a friend and supporter. The case hinged, in part, on the credibility of a mayoral aide who had testified earlier that he had angrily complained to the mayor about Ms. Myerson’s decision to hire the judge’s daughter.
Mr. Koch testified that the conversation “could have occurred,’’ but was unsure.
But under questioning by Ms. Myerson’s lawyer, Frederick P. Hafetz, he acknowledged that he had initially told federal prosecutors that he had had no such conversation.
“It was delicate,” Mr. Hafetz recalled. “You don’t want to do a really aggressive cross-examination because he’s really a popular leader. I wanted to get my point across, but try not to go too far.”
If Mr. Koch was treated gingerly, the same may not be true for Mr. Bloomberg, who appears likely to face an adversarial defense that will produce questioning more akin to what Mayor Walker experienced 80 years ago.
Despite the sport to be found in legal parrying, Mr. Koch said: “You can never enjoy being on a witness stand. You don’t know what you’re going to be asked. You don’t know how it’s going to come out.” Referring to the assault case, he added: “If they don’t believe you, how’s it going to look? That I deserved to be beaten up?”