Conviction of Bruno
Stirs Renewed Effort
To Fight Corruption
In State Legislature
By Henry J. Stern
December 11, 2009
The sordid saga of the squalid swamp--the state senate--received considerable public attention this week, starting with former Majority Leader Joe Bruno's conviction Monday by an Albany jury. The very next day, Bruno received what may be a "get out of jail free" card as U.S. Supreme Court justices disparaged the law under which he was convicted, alleging it was too vague. We reported both events to you the day after they occurred.
Since Tuesday, editorial writers from around the state have joined New York City dailies in expressing their disgust with the ethical standards of Albany. There is a widespread feeling that if other elected officials were pursued with the diligence the United States Attorney used to nail Bruno, more of the low-hanging fruit could easily have been brought to justice. No one, to our knowledge, has publicly defended the senate and its way of doing business. If any of you hears a good word about them, please let us know.
Although many observers believe that our dysfunctional legislature has serious corruption issues, the powers that be (formerly known as the Three Men in a Room) are treating the problem with silence, hoping that it will blow over. Sadly, the chances are that their strategy is correct. This, too, shall pass sounds like the Old Testament, and there is some evidence of it appearing in folklore, but the first specific use (that Pogo could find) was in a speech by Abraham Lincoln to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859. If anyone has an earlier reference, pass it on. It's hard to believe it came from Wisconsin just 150 years ago.
The Legislature is incapable of reforming itself without external direction because the current freewheeling system is the way many of them make their living. Despite their salaries, lulus, living allowances and expense accounts, their insatiable egos and their appetites demand even more than they receive. The salaries of all the judges in New York State have been frozen through eleven years of mild inflation due to legislative caprice: the legislators won't give the judges a raise without getting one for themselves. When the backbenchers see their leaders game the system by making substantial sums outside their salaries, they are further motivated to clamber aboard the gravy train. Of course, good behavior and subservience to ones seniors is the price of a ticket, but a ticket does not guarantee admission if the train is already sold out.
This does NOT apply to all legislators. There are the good schnooks that live on their salaries, or receive unearned income (dividends and interest are both permitted). Many are truly honest, but they are not usually found in positions of power in the legislature. Some have never had the opportunity to enrich themselves, political versions of the 40-year-old virgin depicted in popular culture.
Others are money honest, but politically they are in the pockets of their contributors and their lobbyists. They are somewhat, but not substantially, better than thieves, because they too have sold their offices and abandoned the interests of their constituents for their own political advantage.
Sometimes, it's not that simple. What if their constituents ARE the special interests? Public employees, retirees, employees of hospitals or other institutions that receive support from the federal government, state or city. Farmers receive generous subsidies not to grow crops; why shouldnt public employees receive the same benefits?
It is relatively easy to express contempt for legislators. Most New Yorkers do not hold them in high regard, although they are usually satisfied with the individual who represents them. It is easy to exhort elected officials to change their ways and to reprove them for not having done so. Unfortunately, great expectations run counter to Rule 30-L: "The leopard cannot change its spots." What can one do with an incumbent who is unable or unwilling to change? Either get a new leopard, available at the polls, who may have different spots, or better still, get a zebra, and see the spots replaced by stripes. Hopefully, the stripes will run in the right direction.
President Obama said yesterday in Oslo that some problems cannot be resolved without war. The ground wars are fought at the ballot box. The air strikes come from the Federal Department of Justice, because state law enforcement has proved inadequate. Just as they were slow to protect Southern blacks during the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and '60s, state officials are not eager to take on politicians who may have more clout than they do. We do not mean to single out New York State as a sewer; New Jersey is considered worse. Mayors in New Jersey are arrested by the Feds with monotonous regularity. There is an ethic in the meadows that public service is a route to personal enrichment. To you, that may sound outrageous. To others, it is a way of life. Different cultures have different values and different attitudes toward similar events.
The struggle between good and bad government is perpetual and eternal. There are no permanent victories for either side. The virus of evil cannot be eradicated, as smallpox was. All one can do is continue the struggle, assisted by new techniques like electronic recording devices and cameras, and DNA identification. We also need stronger penalties for violations of the public trust, which is a crime against the state and its people. There is some resemblance to treason here, except that there is no foreign enemy. The distinction could depend on the seriousness of the foreign threat. Defrauding the state for personal gain should be called low treason, reserving high treason for serving a foreign power, or the non-state terrorists who abound.
DIGRESSION FOR A RHYME: On the subject of that ancient word, treason, we quote Sir John Herrington (1561-1612), who wrote in Epigrams, book four:
"Treason doth never prosper: whats the reason?
"Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
EDITORIAL OUTRAGE AT SENATE FIASCO:
This week, New York City newspaper editorials expressed their view that, well deserved as it was, the Bruno conviction should be just the beginning of a cleanup of the public disgrace which is the New York State legislature. Their language was unsparing:
"Of course, Joe Bruno was guilty of the federal felony of depriving New Yorkers of the honest services of a public official. And, of course, Joe Bruno believes that rank corruption is perfectly acceptable as a way of life.
"Both are true because Bruno is the epitome of a debased political culture that has made Albany a wide-open town for all kinds of money-making conflicts of interest and double-dealing, short of accepting satchels of cash in the mens room."
New York Times, Dec. 9, SENATOR BRUNOS LEGACY:
"The conviction of Joseph Bruno, the former state senator who once was one of the most powerful state leaders in the country, is an indictment of the entire New York State Legislature. Mr. Bruno was convicted on two felony counts of "theft of honest services" after a trial that showed how he mingled taxpayers' business with his own and made it clear to one and all why state leaders have taken care not to clean up their legislative pigpen.
"Theres just way too much money to be made.
"Mr. Bruno, who freely used his office and his staff for private business, earned more than $3 million in fees by getting unions and others with business before the state (and who wanted his help with that business) to invest in one of his private profit-making concerns.
"It was the federal government that rooted out this shameful behavior, not the state attorney general or the Albany district attorney or the feeble Legislative Ethics Commission.
"It was bad enough that these people did not, or would not, see what was happening around them. But the testimony eliminates any last feeble excuse for lawmakers to explain their failure to enact real ethics reform.
New York Post, Dec. 9, THE ALBANY CESSPOOL:
"And so Joe Bruno, the former state Senate majority leader, now joins the ever-lengthening line of politicians so clumsy and inept as to be convicted of a major crime in one of the most cynical and ethically permissive environments in America.
"Indeed, if the feds thought Bruno took advantage of his position and he did in all fairness shouldnt they also take a peek at the "honest services" Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver provides as part-time "counsel" to one of the nation's most lucrative trial-law practices?
"On another level, though, that would be missing the point: Albany's real problem isnt so much that lawmakers take bribes, but that they give them. Using tax dollars.
"This year alone, they spend $170 million in public funds on "member items"pork-barrel projectsintended chiefly to buy votes in their districts.
"And they routinely appropriate hundreds of millions in pension and work-rule sweeteners for public-employee unions, while lavishing billions on New York's well-connected health-care cartel.
"Now, nobody ever said they werent a cheap date: They only get pennies back on the dollar in campaign donations and in-kind services.
"But it adds up to enough to get the job done: Incumbents are re-elected literally 98 percent of the time."
The News returned to the subject on Dec. 10, WE NEED JOES LAW: BRUNO'S CRIMES SHOW THE NEED FOR TOUGH ALBANY ETHICS CRACKDOWN:
"Terrified that Joe Bruno's corruption conviction will stoke throw-the-bums-out fever among voters, Albany lawmakers are trumpeting that now is the time to get serious about ethics at the state Capitol. But they're not even close.
"What Albany needs is bulletproof laws combined with tough, independent enforcement and harsh penalties for violators not the loophole-riddled half-measures and Rube Goldberg bureaucracies being contemplated in the Legislature.
"For starters, they must make it a felony to abuse public office for personal gain the behavior that put the former Senate GOP boss in danger of prison time. Its a scandal that such a law isnt already on the books."
As editorial writers denounced Bruno for the umpteenth time, Senators Eric Schneiderman and Daniel Squadron are working on legislation to curb conflicts. The Daily News criticized the pairs proposal in yesterday's editorial but welcomed their efforts. The News listed seven "ingredients for real reform, and they are missing" from the plan the two offered. They give the two credit for "heading in the right direction, but they need to go a lot further to produce a Joe's Law that deserves the name."
Senators Schneiderman and Squadron are already taking the initiative, and we give them credit for trying, our advice is that, as long as nothing significant they suggest is likely to pass, they should adopt the suggestions the News has made. Don't give away the store before you open for business, and dont believe any of the stories your colleagues will tell you about how they really support what you are trying to do, but this just isnt the right time to do it.
StarQuest #628 12.11.2009 1841wds