The New York Post by DAVID GRANDEAU - December 8, 2009
Former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has been found guilty on two counts in his federal corruption trial, but the issue of corruption in New York remains all too alive. In that light, it's worth noting that both the prosecution and defense invoked images of a schoolyard bully in their colorful closing arguments. The prosecution said Bruno was the bully in the Albany schoolyard, that he used the muscle of his government office to influence unions and others to do business with the private firms that employed him and gave him lucrative payments.
The defense said, in effect, that Bruno might have been a bully -- but that teachers and the principal were right there in the schoolyard with him, saw what he was doing and approved. The schoolyard problems should stay in the schoolyard, the defense argued, and not be turned into a federal case. As outrageous as that argument might seem, it's both accurate and correct. It shouldn't have taken a federal indictment to address the conduct at the center of the Bruno trial. State watchdogs (the teachers and principals) should have handled it. In fact, I'd argue that all of the Albany scandals of recent years are rooted in the fact that state watchdogs simply haven't done their jobs. They've refused to take a firm stand on integrity, and been way too cozy with the people they are supposed to be watching. Rather than watchdogs, they've acted as pet lapdogs to the politically powerful. Now the typical reaction to scandal by both pundits and even good government groups is to say, as they always have: "We need stronger laws!" But the reality is that we don't need stronger laws -- we need stronger watchdogs that aren't afraid to bite. The Legislative Ethics Commission (a contradiction in terms at this point) is controlled by the leaders of the Legislature, who appoint members from their own ranks. And history has shown that members of the Legislature simply don't act against their colleagues, even in the face of egregious abuse.
One of the most extraordinary revelations of the Bruno trial is that lawyers for the Legislative Ethics Commission actually advised lawmakers not to send their ethics disclosure filings through the mail, so as to help avoid the possibility of federal mail-fraud charges. Shocking -- but also business as usual in Albany's political playground. Similarly, the state's Public Integrity Commission is controlled by the governor, who appoints the majority of its members, usually from the ranks of friends and former associates. Recent history shows why this doesn't work. The executive director of the commission, a friend of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, leaked information on the Troopergate probe to administration officials while it was investigating the administration. The executive director later resigned in disgrace -- but the commission itself has failed to accept responsibility and has even appointed one of the lawyers implicated in the scandal to be its new executive director. I'm convinced that if we want to prevent or slow down the amount of corruption in Albany, we need to remove those regulators who have acted as enablers, find new regulators who truly understand the job and accept the imperative of making lawmakers uncomfortable with their scrutiny. If the good-government groups and editorial boards want to pass a new law, they should start by supporting Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's bill to eliminate the Public Integrity Commission and the state's Legislative Ethics Commission. Think of the schoolyard. Do we want the bully to appoint the principal from the ranks of his chums? Of course not. We need adult supervision in Albany. And until we get it, the bullies will continue to run the schoolyard.
David Grandeau is the former executive director of the New York State Lobbying Commission.
Department of Justice Press Release
For Immediate Release
December 7, 2009 United States Attorney's Office
Northern District of New York
Contact: (315) 448-0672
Former New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno Convicted of Scheming to Defraud the Citizens of New York of His Honest Services
ALBANY, NEW YORK—United States Attorney Andrew T. Baxter and Special- Agent-in- Charge John F. Pikus of the Albany Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation announce the verdict of a federal jury in Albany following the three-week trial of Joseph L. Bruno, the Former Majority Leader of the New York State Senate. After seven days of deliberation, the jury convicted Bruno on two felony counts, acquitted on five counts, and were unable to reach a verdict on one count of the indictment. The jury found Bruno guilty on the following “honest-services” mail fraud charges: Count 4, which involved Bruno’s dealings with two entities related to Jared E. Abbruzzese—Communication Technology Advisors LLC and Capital & Technology Advisors LLC—that made “consulting” payments to Bruno, which the government contended were not commensurate with legitimate services provided by Bruno; and Count 8, which related to Abbruzzese’s $80,000 “purchase” of a virtually worthless horse from Bruno, which the government contended was a disguised gift to Bruno to compensate him for “consulting fees” that another entity related to Abbruzzese stopped paying to Bruno. The jury acquitted Bruno on five wire/mail fraud counts, which involved Bruno’s activities relating to other entities with which Bruno had private business arrangements—Wright Investors’ Service (Count 1), Asentinel (Count 2), two other entities related to Jared E. Abbruzzese (Counts 5 and 6), and BB Gardner Management Corporation (Count 7). The jury deadlocked on Count 3, which involved the activities of Bruno relating to Leonard J. Fassler and various related entities that made “consulting” payments to Bruno, which the government contended were not earned by Bruno for legitimate services. U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe declared a mistrial with respect to the one count on which the jury was deadlocked. The United States Attorney’s Office will consider whether to re-try Bruno on that count following post-trial motions and after appropriate internal deliberation. Sentencing was scheduled for March 31, 2010 before Judge Sharpe. Joseph L. Bruno faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each count on which he was convicted. The parties consented to a bench trial on the government’s asset forfeiture demand.
United States Attorney Baxter made the following statement regarding the Bruno verdict: “We commend the jury for their dedicated and patient service. The jury’s guilty verdict on two felony counts reflects their unanimous determination that Joseph L. Bruno deprived of the citizens of New York of his honest and faithful services, contrary to federal law. I am extremely proud of Assistant United States Attorneys Elizabeth C. Coombe and William C. Pericak, who made a fair and cogent presentation of the government’s case, reflecting the highest principles of federal prosecutors. We appreciate the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Labor in developing this seminal case and assisting with the prosecution.” Bruno was charged with carrying out a scheme to defraud the State of New York and its citizens of the right to his honest services by soliciting private business from, and entering into direct and indirect financial relationships with, persons or entities who were pursuing interests before the New York State Legislature or other state agencies. The indictment further alleged that Bruno concealed and failed to disclose the existence and true nature of such financial relationships, and the resulting conflicts of interest while taking discretionary official actions benefitting parties with whom he had those relationships. While New York State legislators are part-time officials permitted to pursue other employment or business activities, the indictment alleged that Bruno improperly exploited his official position and concealed conflicts of interest, contrary to state ethics and reporting laws, with respect to his private “consulting” business. Each count of the indictment alleged particular uses of the mails or the interstate wires in furtherance of the alleged scheme.
United States Attorney Baxter continued: “As the Senate Majority Leader, Joseph L. Bruno had a fiduciary relationship with the State of New York and its citizens requiring disinterested decision making and candid disclosure of the potential motivation behind his official acts. We established at this trial that Bruno exploited his office by concealing the nature and source of substantial payments that he received from parties that benefitted from his official actions and the resulting conflicts of interest.” “The prosecutors and agents involved in this case take no pleasure from what the trial revealed about the culture of the New York State Senate, under the leadership of Joseph L. Bruno. Federal law enforcement in the Northern District of New York will continue to strive to ensure that public officials who breach their public trust will be held accountable, notwithstanding the challenges presented by the state’s inadequate legislative ethics and disclosure laws.”