State lawmakers put on notice about scrutiny after Bruno conviction
The Albany Times Union by BRENDAN J. LYONS, Senior writer - December 11, 2009
ALBANY, NY -- Federal authorities who oversaw the prosecution of Joseph L. Bruno said they will continue to investigate allegations of corruption within the state Legislature, and that the FBI's resources for such cases have more than doubled in recent years. In an interview Thursday at the federal courthouse where Bruno was convicted by a jury this week on two felony counts, acting U.S. Attorney Andrew T. Baxter and John Pikus, special agent in charge of the FBI's Albany field division, said their probe of Bruno, which began five years ago, was hampered by New York's arguably porous ethics laws. "The state ethics and disclosure laws make it much harder for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute public corruption involving state officials,'' Baxter said. "There's just so little transparency in the legislative process that it takes an enormous amount of time and effort to uncover what really happened." Pikus took over leadership of the FBI's Albany field office in the summer of 2006, about seven months after agents opened an investigation of Bruno, the former state Senate majority leader. He said since then the number of agents who are assigned exclusively to public corruption cases have doubled to more than a handful. "It really is the state Legislature," Pikus said of where they are focusing. "The bureau understands that in any government form of the legislature there's going to be some allegations of wrongdoing and we are constantly on the outlook for that. I have the agents now, very experienced agents, working on information that's come to us and we're taking a look at it."
Assistant U.S. Attorney William C. Pericak, a co-prosecutor in the Bruno case with Elizabeth C. Coombe, was circumspect about whether other state lawmakers should be concerned with what happened to Bruno, who was convicted on two of eight counts in an indictment built on the federal honest services law. "I don't know," Pericak said. "It depends on who's paying them." The focus of the Bruno case was on payments the former senator received from a variety of companies or individuals who had an interest in his legislative duties, or his connections from his powerful majority leader post. He was convicted on two counts that related to his dealings with Jared E. Abbruzzese, a Loudonville businessman who became a millionaire from his efforts in the telecommuncations industry. Bruno and Abbruzzese also were partners in a horse-breeding partnership, which was the subject of one of the counts on which Bruno was convicted: Abbruzzese agreed to pay Bruno $80,000 for a prospective racehorse that prosecutors alleged was virtually worthless.
The trial of Bruno tore open the state's shadowy legislative ethics process, where lawmakers can seek opinions on their business affairs from a committee they help appoint and in a venue that is secret. But because of federal grand jury subpoenas the dealings of Bruno, the legal advice he received from Senate lawyers and the murky process by which he claimed no conflict of interest in his personal income was all were laid bare. Baxter said the Justice Department normally would defer to local or state prosecutors in cases of public corruption involving state and local government. But he said the structure of the state Legislature and the rules the elected officials created have made such referrals difficult. "In this case we decided the federal authorities needed to step in," Baxter said. "I think it would be easier for law enforcement at all levels to distinguish between corrupt politicians and politicians that are playing by the rules if there was more transparency in the state government process." Pericak added: "I think more transparency discourages bad behavior. In that sense, there's less of it but it's clearer."
The prosecutors said their office has made no decision on whether to retry Bruno on count three of the indictment, which relates to $468,000 in consulting fees Bruno received from a business associate, Leonard J. Fassler, whose various companies had an interest in state government contracts and Bruno's status as a top power broker. "We have not ruled that out," Baxter said. "We won't make a decision on a retrial until after the post-trial motions and we're further down the road." Bruno, 80, is scheduled for sentencing on March 31. Under federal guidelines he could face as much as three years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $250,00 on each count. However, federal judges have latitude in the sentences they hand down and Bruno could face punishment ranging from probation to many years in prison. Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.