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Sunday, January 25, 2009

The State of New York Under Indictment

Legislative system under indictment
Federal case against Bruno spotlights weak state ethics laws
The Albany Times Union by JAMES M. ODATO - January 25, 2009

At the end of his news conference Friday, after the court appearance that followed his indictment on federal corruption charges, former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno suggested that if what he did could be seen as a crime, then other lawmakers may be equally guilty. In fact, in the eyes of good-government groups, Bruno's indictment is equally an indictment of New York's weak government ethics laws. After a three-year investigation, the indictment accused Bruno of dishonest public service over 13 years. The eight counts lay out the case that he enriched himself with $3.2 million from people and organizations seeking his influence in state government. Bruno pleaded not guilty. Federal officials who brought the case, in their own post-indictment news conference, strongly suggested that New York's government ethics laws need to change to prevent dishonesty by lawmakers and to reveal conflicts of interest. It echoed what government reform advocates in Albany have argued for years.

"This is an indictment of not only Joe Bruno, but New York state's ethics laws," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, the citizen lobbying organization that promotes open government. "Joe Bruno's indictment emphatically highlights the shameful state of New York's ethics laws, graphically demonstrating why the Legislature should not be expected to police the ethics of its own members." Lerner said the only officials able to root out corruption in state government in recent years are those with federal subpoena power. Even with such tools, federal officials said Friday, it was difficult to assemble a case against a man who was the most powerful legislative leader in Albany from 1995 to 2008. "Mr. Bruno exploited his office by ... not revealing his business relationships and potential conflicts of interest," Acting U.S. Attorney Andrew Baxter said. The indictment filed by Baxter asserts that Bruno made millions from companies for which he was working, and from a consulting firm he created, by helping individuals, unions and other entities pursue state business. It alleges he reported the sources of his income on his required annual financial disclosure forms, but incompletely, by purposely masking details and without telling the Legislative Ethics Committee, which reviewed the disclosures, who was paying him for what. Even if Bruno is not guilty, as he energetically insists, the allegations suggest how easily a New York lawmaker could conceal profiteering.

Law enforcement agents in the three-year Bruno probe had to overcome "the lack of transparency in state government," FBI Special Agent in Charge John Pikus said. The backroom dealing was difficult to penetrate, added Steven Perez, a special agent in charge of investigating racketeering for the U.S. Department of Labor. Bruno was charged with federal mail and wire fraud for allegedly depriving the public of the honest services of a government official — a statute commonly used to pursue public corruption without evidence of actual bribery. In his news conference Friday, Bruno maintained that the "honest services" provisions of federal law could put a target on all legislators who have to work for a living. "I did nothing wrong. I broke no laws," he said. "We are a part-time Legislature. That's what this legislature is. . . . Most of the people in the Legislature work. This is a threat to everybody in government." The former Senate leader said he checked with unspecified "counsel" and "ethics people" to assure his business dealings were legal. Several Senate staffers who worked for Bruno were called as witnesses before the grand jury that indicted him. Despite repeated pronouncement of "ethics reform" laws in recent years, New York's rules for public officials are widely viewed as among the weakest of any large state. Dollar amounts on state financial disclosure forms, which are not published on the Internet, exist as only broad ranges of value — and even those vague range values are withheld from the public. Descriptions of income or gift sources are allowed to be similarly opaque.

Public officials in New York are not required to disclose conflicts of interest. Such conflicts, when they are discovered, are actionable only if ethics officials, who operate in secrecy, deem them to be "significant." And state prosecutors cannot bring criminal charges under the state's ethics laws without a referral from an ethics panel, which consists of members appointed by the very politicians they regulate. Even if prosecutors clear those hurdles and bring charges, a violation of the ethics law is only a misdemeanor, not a felony. What Bruno did — according to the federal indictment against him — is easily concealed by lawmakers because no independent monitors are keeping watch, government reform advocates say. That's one reason, critics say, why it took a federal probe to uncover a similar scheme recently alleged against Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, D-Queens, who, like Bruno, awaits trial.

The federal indictments are offering reform groups, which repeatedly call New York state government dysfunctional, more ammunition to call for an oversight body to police the Legislature. "There is no watchdog," said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Pubic Research Interest Group. "You've had an astonishingly long list of lawmakers getting into trouble. We haven't reached the tipping point yet." Horner said it isn't surprising Bruno didn't take ethics oversight seriously: The ethics panel, chosen by him and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, has never charged any lawmakers with wrongdoing. A reform agreement two years ago resulted in a reconstituted panel — nine members, mostly non-elected appointees of the legislative leaders. However, the ninth member, meant to be a tie-breaker chairman agreed upon by both the Senate and Assembly, has never been named. The panel is currently led by one Assembly member and one Senate member in what one seasoned state official called an "elegant deception" of real reform.

Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, whose district is flanked by lawmakers recently convicted of or charged with fraud — former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin and Seminerio, respectively — said the image of his profession is getting tarnished. A lawyer with aspirations of becoming attorney general, Gianaris said he is unsure if the Bruno case will spur change. Assembly leaders have been mum on the indictment and Senate leaders issued terse news releases suggesting that Bruno is simply confronting another of life's challenges and it's time to move on. "If someone wants to break the law they're not going to disclose they're breaking the law," Gianaris said. "The disclosure laws need improvement in New York. But that won't solve the problem, because people who want to do bad things will find a way to do bad things." James M. Odato can be reached at 454-5083 or by e-mail at


Anonymous said...

....because people who want to do bad things will find a way to do bad things."......And the People ultimately injured by the people who do bad things...must put the bad people who did them, IN JAIL ASAP!

Anonymous said...

he can not see the crime over the piles of money he made.

Anonymous said...

The ethics reform needed begins with the media. There are plenty of cases to report involving corrupt judges and politicians but the media turns a blind eye; perhaps fearful of retribution; perhaps advancing their own political party. Get off your posturing bottoms and do your job. Need info, start with this site; check federal court cases; report those cases; ask questions of elected officials. when you acccept corruption from one party; you have more corruption from both parties. Corruption exists because there is no good media willing to cover it all.

Anonymous said...

We dont need traditional media. Love to have em but we dont need em, do we? The internet is the definitive media.
How on earth do we use it better?

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See Video of Senator John L. Sampson's 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption

The first hearing, held in Albany on June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:

               Video of 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption
               The June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:
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