Well, good news and bad news, as they say, for former state Sen. Joe Bruno. A federal appeals court yesterday reversed his conviction for depriving us of his honest services, which was the good news, but opened the door for him to be retried under a new interpretation of the law he supposedly violated, which was the bad news. Good and bad for him, is what I mean.
Bruno was convicted two years ago, if you remember, of basically failing to disclose a conflict of interest under a particularly broad and vague section of federal mail- and wire-fraud law, and he was sentenced to two years in prison, the sentence stayed until the Supreme Court could rule on the constitutionality of the law itself.
The court soon ruled that the law was impermissibly vague. One could be convicted under it only if the conflict of interest involved bribery or extortion.
Bruno had not been convicted of bribery or extortion, and the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, William Pericak, told the jury it was not necessary to prove such a thing; which was true at the time. So it was no surprise that the conviction was reversed, and indeed the government agreed that it should be reversed.
But Pericak argued that the proper remedy was a new trial, with a jury given instructions consistent with the new and narrower interpretation of the law. He said the evidence already presented was sufficient to prove bribery, even though he made no bribery argument the first time around.
The Court of Appeals agreed. “A reasonable jury could conclude that Bruno deprived New York citizens of his honest services by accepting payments that were intended to and did influence his conduct as a public official,” the court said.
Pericak said he will proceed right away to seek a new indictment from a grand jury.
As for a time frame, he said by law he has six months to obtain the new, superseding indictment. The last time it took another 10 months to go to trial, though this time it could be quicker, because the groundwork has all been laid, and the case has been reduced in scope, since the five charges on which Bruno was acquitted are over and done with and he can be retried only on the two of which he was convicted and the one on which the jury failed to reach a verdict.
Pericak said he didn’t yet know if he would seek to try Bruno on all three of those.
The court’s own summary of the evidence was fairly damning, spelling out, for one example, how Bruno approved a $1.5 million state grant to a technology company owned by one Jared Abbruzzese, the money to be paid in three annual installments of $500,000 each, then, after authorizing an initial payment of $250,000, sat on the rest until finally proposing that Abbruzzese pay him $30,000 a month as a “consultant.”
Abbruzzese at first demurred but then consented to $20,000 a month, after which Bruno cleared the remaining payments, which sounds very much like a simple squeeze: I’ll give you $1.5 million of taxpayer money if you kick some back to me.
In the event, Bruno collected $200,000 from that deal, funneled through a company “run from his Senate office by his staff, who, at Bruno’s direction, performed the companies’ administrative and bookkeeping work,” in the words of the court.
There was no evidence that Bruno did any actual work for Abbruzzese.
Rather, “the government’s evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find that Bruno performed virtually non-existent consulting work for substantial payments,” the court said, so that “the payments were sham ones.”
Tough talk from an appeals court, and quite a slap to Bruno, who continues to put himself forward as a simple businessman who was trying to make an honest dollar outside of his part-time duties as a senator.
The evidence adduced at trial pretty clearly indicated that his only business was the squeeze, and now a jury and a judge will get another crack at him.
If he goes before the same judge, the Hon. Gary Sharpe, he can expect little sympathy. “You trampled on the trust of the people,” Sharpe told him as he sentenced him to prison the first time around. “You committed crimes, and you can’t accept that. You have blinders on.”
Indeed. “I’m proud of my public service,” Bruno said a little later, outside of court. “I don’t see that I have anything to apologize for.”
He said the first trial cost him $2 million, what with the high-powered legal team he engaged, and now this will cost him more. At the age of 82 he’s liable to be both dead and broke before it’s over.
The counting of absentee ballots in the race between Gary McCarthy and Roger Hull for mayor of Schenectady proceeded yesterday at a pace every bit as glacial as I expected, and I admit that I bailed out early in the day, after only about 12 votes had been counted. The counting of those 12 took an hour and a half, what with two election commissioners, one lawyer plus one assistant for candidate McCarthy, and one lawyer plus one campaign manager for candidate Hull having a crack at each ballot and each envelope containing each ballot in search of irregularities.
Not to mention two deputy commissioners, one county attorney, and two auxiliary lawyers for candidate Hull standing by for any emergency service that might be required of them.
Was an envelope not sealed properly? Was it postmarked too late? Did a signature on an absentee ballot not match the signature on the application for such a ballot?
If so, the ballot was challenged, if not by this candidate’s representative then by that one’s. Those that survived scrutiny got counted, and by the end of the day my patient colleague Kathleen Moore reported that McCarthy had gained six votes to lead by 83 votes.
At this rate, the count should be completed some time before the next mayoral term expires, in four years.
It is a noble process, bathing our democracy in glory, but if I had to watch the whole thing I would be carried out comatose before it ended.
Ken out of luck
And speaking of Brunos, and speaking of votes, let us not forget Joe’s son, Ken. Remember him? Riding on his father’s coattails, he became district attorney of Rensselaer County in 1997, but after six years in office he resigned with the explanation that he couldn’t live on the $120,000 salary.
So he launched himself as a lobbyist, which was quite an eyebrow-raiser, since one of the main power-people to be lobbied in Albany at the time was his own father, the majority leader of the state Senate.
Then after a couple of years he pulled the plug on that operation, too, and went into the private practice of law. I don’t know how he has fared in that capacity, as I have had little news of him, but I noted that in the recent election he was a candidate for town justice in the small rural town of Grafton, Rensselaer County, a job that pays $6,500 a year, which strikes me as quite a readjustment of sights.
And how did he fare? Well, it pains me to report, but he lost by a vote of 507 to 327, or 61 percent to 39 percent.