Bruno conviction spurs drive for ethics reform

Efforts to reform the state’s weak legislative ethics and finance disclosure laws have often stalled
Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno speaks to the media outside of the James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse in Albany Monday after hearing the verdict.
Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno speaks to the media outside of the James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse in Albany Monday after hearing the verdict.

Efforts to reform the state’s weak legislative ethics and finance disclosure laws have often stalled but will get new spark from former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno’s conviction Monday on two counts of influence-peddling, according to good government groups.

The groups that have been pushing change for years are both hopeful and cautious about what will happen when the Legislature returns in January, given the roadblocks that have stalled previous reform proposals.

“If this doesn’t do it, all hope is lost,” said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the state League of Women Voters, long an advocate of government ethics reforms.

Bruno, a Rensselaer County legend who from 1994 to 2008 was one of the most powerful politicians in the state, was convicted by a jury on two felony mail fraud counts after a monthlong trial in a federal courtroom just three blocks from the state Capitol.

Bruno was found innocent of five of the eight counts brought against him, and the jury deadlocked on the eighth. He maintains his innocence on all charges and said Monday he will fight to overturn the two convictions.

On Tuesday, Bruno, 80, of Brunswick, resigned from his position as CEO of CMA Consulting Services of Latham, a position he took after resigning from the Senate last year. CMA founder and President Kay Stafford has resumed her previous role as CEO, effective immediately.

CMA is an information technology company that has numerous contracts with New York state that might have been affected if a corporate officer had a felony conviction.

Strengthening the state’s ethics laws has been on the legislative agenda — most recently when a Democrat-sponsored proposal to establish a new commission was defeated in the state Senate in September.

many lapses

A dozen other state legislators, other elective officials and civil servants have been convicted of corruption crimes in recent years, but Bruno is by far the most prominent.

“It’s a political earthquake in Albany,” Blair Horner, legislative director of NYPIRG, said shortly after the Bruno verdict came from the jury late Monday.

The accusations Bruno was found guilty of include accepting $200,000 in a consulting arrangement with Loudonville businessman Jared Abbruzzese in 2004, and accepting $80,000 from Abbruzzese for a “worthless” race horse.

Abbruzzese was part-owner of a technology company that got state grant money and had an interest in one of the groups seeking the state thoroughbred racing franchise.

Prosecutors contended that Abbruzzese’s payments were illegal gifts to Bruno, and their relationship created potential conflicts of interest that weren’t disclosed on state legislative ethics disclosure forms.

Prosecutors had sought to show Bruno had a series of business relationships that were improper for a legislator. They sought to prove that he tried to hide them and earned $3.2 million from them between 1993 and 2006. The jury rejected the bulk of those charges, though, convicting only on the charges involving Abbruzzese.

Bruno repeatedly said outside the courthouse that he was a part-time legislator, and had the right to earn outside income. State legislators, who earn a base salary of $79,500, are in fact classified as part-timers, and allowed to have outside income as long an appropriate disclosures are made.

federal pursuit

The federal charges were brought under the controversial “honest services fraud” law, which allows prosecution for depriving citizens of an official’s “honest services,” even though Bruno was never charged with any state ethics law violations. That law is under challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court in three cases, the first of which was argued Tuesday.

Andrew T. Baxter, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, said his office will continue to root out acts of official corruption, and he faulted New York’s laws.

“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,” Baxter said.

State Sen. Roy J. McDonald, R-Saratoga, who was elected last year to Bruno’s old seat, said Tuesday that radical change may be necessary.

McDonald said new financial and conflict of interest disclosure rules are needed that apply to lawyers as much as to other people serving in the Legislature. A number of lawyers serve in the state Legislature, and they aren’t required to disclose their clients, which McDonald said creates a potential for conflict.

“I think there has to be detailed disclosure, and a discussion on whether this will be a full-time or part-time Legislature,” McDonald said.

But McDonald, who grew up working class in the Lansingburgh section of Troy, also cautioned that restricting assemblymen and senators’ outside income could create a situation in which only the wealthy can afford to serve.

He said term limits, allowing the public to petition for statewide referendums and even reducing the state Legislature to a single house are ideas worth exploring.

ethics and finance

Bartoletti, of the League of Women Voters, said the Legislature needs to establish a strong independent entity to monitor ethics issues, with stronger campaign financing disclosure requirements.

A bill that would have established a new commission failed to pass the state Senate in September, with Republicans voting against it because they said its appointees could be partisan.

Sen. John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, conference leader of the Senate Democrats, is currently trying to negotiate a bill that can earn passage in both the Senate and the Assembly, which passed a reform bill earlier this year.

“Obviously, the Bruno situation is an unfortunate situation that shows the need for strong ethics reform. It will be a top priority of the conference in the coming session,” said Selvena Brooks, press secretary to Sampson.

Gov. David Paterson has been an advocate of reform, calling earlier this year for creation of a new government ethics commission that would oversee both the legislative and executive branches.

Former Congressman Rick Lazio, an announced Republican candidate for governor next year, also said the Bruno verdict shows the need for change.

“We need to throw out the old way of doing things and start all over again from the beginning. The status quo won’t cut it another day,” Lazio said Tuesday.

Categories: Schenectady County

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