Manhattan appeals court judges on Friday sharply scrutinized efforts by prosecutors to put a former Republican leader of the state Senate on trial a second time and questioned the fairness of a potential retrial.
“Why should you get another chance now?” Judge Denny Chin asked a government lawyer at a hearing in the Joseph Bruno case at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Judge Barrington Parker asked whether it was necessary to “put the man through another six-week, horrendous experience of a criminal trial.”
Bruno, 82, was convicted in 2009 of denying taxpayers honest services by concealing a deal with a business associate who paid him as a consultant.
But the U.S. Supreme Court made reversal likely last year by ruling in the case of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling that federal statutes used to fight white-collar and public official fraud only criminalize schemes with proof of bribes or kickbacks.
Prosecutors responded earlier this year by filing court papers seeking another trial for Bruno, the state Senate’s Republican leader for 13 years, saying there was enough evidence to show he received $280,000 in return for taking official actions on behalf of the business associate. They asked the 2nd Circuit to return the case to the lower court in Albany, where prosecutors can seek a superseding indictment and give a new jury proper instructions on the anti-fraud law.
“The core conduct was criminal before Skilling and it’s criminal after Skilling,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe argued Friday. “I don’t think it’s unfair to Sen. Bruno.”
Bruno’s lawyers have argued that the government doesn’t deserve a “do-over” based on instructional error. They have accused the government of “relentlessly pursuing” the former senator for four years — an “exhaustive effort” that produced weak charges.
Attorney Abby Lowell argued Friday that the government has never had enough evidence to support a bribery case.
His client, he said, should not have to endure a retrial on charges “that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place.”
The three-judge panel said it would rule at a later date.
Bruno, who retired from office in 2008, did not testify at trial but repeatedly told reporters he had done nothing wrong and was simply another part-time legislator with an outside consulting business.
He was sentenced last year to two years in prison, but is free pending appeal.
Outside court on Friday, he called the experience “exasperating.”
“I’m proud of my government service,” he said. “I’d just like to get on with my life.”