He Took Big Bucks
To Get State Deals
For Those Who Paid
By Henry J. Stern
December 8, 2009
The news from Albany is important. At best, it is a harbinger of the collapse of the regime of greed. At worst, it will make the plotters more careful in their schemes and scare off some of them. It is likely to have an intermediate effect, which will be to the good.
Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate Majority Leader from 1994 to 2008, one of the storied three men in a room (along with Sheldon Silver of the Assembly and whoever happens to be governor at the moment), was convicted on two counts of influence peddling and acquitted on five counts. That is like being struck by two bullets while escaping five others. You can still be killed, politically at least, even though you might escape durance vile.
Todays dailies covered the verdict in great detail. The Times page one article, by Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim, can be found here. The News carried a page one picture of the Senator, over the headline, SHAME OF KING BRUNO. They ran columns by Kenneth Lovett and Glenn Blain. Page one of the Post was devoted to a large picture, captioned TIGERS WIFE TURNS TAIL. The Bruno articles took pages two and three, a news story by Brendan Scott, and a column by Fredric U. Dicker hoping that Bruno's conviction will prompt the legislature to adopt ethics reform, particularly the disclosure of amounts of outside income. When you think of it, that is a pretty basic requirement. Who beside the State of New York is paying you, senator or assemblyman?
We have been criticizing Senator Bruno for five years. Our first article, Take Off the Kid Gloves, appeared in the late lamented New York Sun on October 6, 2004. It dealt with Bruno's devotion to former Senator Guy Velella, who was sent to Rikers Island after his felony conviction for taking bribes
Our antipathy toward the former majority leader and his misdeeds is in no way personal. His manners are good, even courtly. We cannot evaluate how he treats his staff, except to cite Rule 22-V (No man is a hero to his valet.). He has never, so far as we know, abused or injured us. The park name he chose was "Leader," which was fitting. We do not strip people of their park names, unless they become murders or terrorists. In fact, if Bruno were not envious of Speaker Sheldon Silver and his ample income stream, then he might still be Senate leader at 80, although he might not have wanted to stay as Minority Leader.
The injury to the public here is that we were deprived of his "honest services." The United States Supreme Court will have to decide whether the "honest services" rule is sufficiently specific to convict a legislator of a felony. But his acceptance of money for doing financial favors are intrinsically criminal, as well as socially irresponsible. Bruno presided for 14 years over one of the twin pillars of the most dysfunctional legislature in the United States, according to a Brennan Center report in 2004.
The crimes for which he was convicted do not concern his votes on legislation in the State Senate, nor his paying bribes to other people. Bruno was a receiver. The charges relate to his influence in securing contracts with state agencies for companies who were paying him off by hiring him as a consultant, and for arranging the appropriation of sufficient funds by the legislature to pay for these contracts.
The senator never rented an office to conduct his spurious consultancy: he ran it from under his hat, with his state-employee secretary keeping the books. Ultimately she turned on Bruno, possibly to avoid being prosecuted herself. The Feds do that.
One count on which he was convicted was selling a worthless horse, so valued because the animal could not run fast enough to win races to pay for his keep, let alone enrich his owner, to his horse-breeding business partner and co-conspirator, one Jared Abbruzzese, for $40,000 plus forgiveness of a $40,000 obligation. This sounds like ending a partnership by sticking one partner with a tired old horse, the beleaguered inventory of the failed enterprise.
There is something very tangible and obviously wrong about selling a bad steed for a princely sum, even to ones partner in the horse breeding business. A horse is a substantial animal, a jury can visualize it. An equine is not as easy to conceal as a dollar. The transaction hearkens back to horse trading, which is supposed to be edgy (a matter of opinion) but not completely fraudulent. Why drag an innocent horse into a bribery plot? Perhaps that is why the jury singled out this transaction (and the accompanying bribe) as the basis for a conviction, while finding him not guilty on five other counts of the indictment.
The situation evokes this historic tale. "For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a twopenny nail." BTW, Pogo advises me that those lines do not appear in Richard III, as many believe. What the Plantagenet monarch said, as quoted by William Shakespeare, was: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." It is fitting that Senator Bruno, himself a horseman and a power over the State Racing and Wagering Board for many years, should be convicted on these particular counts.
We wonder just what became of the $80,000 horse that was transferred from Mr. B to Mr. A. Did he (or she) go to the race track, to pasture, to stud, or to the glue factory? Did the horse have a name? Is it lost to history?
We note that Bruno was acquitted on five other counts, relating to much larger sums of money that he received from Wright Investors Service, which represented labor unions. Those were probably the counts that divided the jury for a week, and the pro-conviction jurors were wise to yield on those counts in order to produce a verdict. The Times reported that "The trial also delved into Mr. Bruno's private business, which spanned work for more than a dozen companies during more than a decade and a half, earning Mr. Bruno roughly $3.2 million in fees."
The essence of the case was that the Senator sold his office. That was the finding of the jury, on two out of eight counts. Regardless of what the courts may eventually find about "honest service", the conviction was justified on the evidence.
We cannot help but wonder as to where were all the state investigative agencies during Bruno's reign? Or Eliot Spitzer's? Or Alan Hevesi's? Why did it require the US Attorney? And why wasn't the case brought to trial during the Bush years, or under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? Just asking.
StarQuest #626 12.08.2009 1146wds