Nearly everyone in the Capital Region had an opinion on former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s prosecution, conviction and sentence — and in the last few months dozens of people, including former Gov. George Pataki at the last minute, have weighed in with letters seeking to influence Judge Gary Sharpe on the latter. But in the end it was up to Sharpe whether to give Bruno prison time and how much, and we can’t say he got it wrong yesterday when he sentenced Bruno to two years.
Most of the give-Bruno-a-break letters were of the “he was a generous guy who did a lot for the region and state” variety. But the generosity most of them were talking about was with taxpayer money given to various institutions and organizations, which would pay Bruno back with kind words, his name on buildings and political support. And also to various individuals and companies, which would pay him back financially in some way. The first wasn’t illegal; the second, in at least two cases involving a friend and business partner, was, as a federal jury found when it convicted him last December.
Pataki, in an otherwise good letter supporting Bruno without trying to excuse his actions, said that Bruno was always forthright and candid in his opinions. Perhaps, but not in his financial dealings, where he regularly conflated state business with his own. The senator was always unapologetic about money — whether it was giving the state’s away or making it himself; his motto seemed to be what’s good for Joe Bruno is good for New York.
But using one’s powerful position for personal enrichment, and hiding the details and extent of it, is neither good nor honest, as the U.S. Justice Department argued in successfully prosecuting him under the federal “theft of honest services” law. Although that statute is currently under constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court for vagueness, it is nonetheless the law at this time.
In fact, a more specific state “honest services” law was proposed earlier this week in Albany. One is certainly needed, as well as more financial disclosure and other transparency, limits on campaign contributions, tougher penalties, etc.
That’s because the biggest problem is New York is not politicians breaking the law, but what is allowed. Bruno was guilty of corruption, but as his case and many other recent ones have made clear, the whole system is corrupt and cries out for reform.