Bruno trial shines light on all
Joe Bruno is on trial for his life.
It is a complicated case, and it must have the denizens of the Legislature very, very scared. It’s all about something called the federal “theft of honest services” statute. Put succinctly, the law stipulates that either you represent the interests of your constituents or you represent your own interests. It posits that the two are mutually exclusive.
The feds contend that Joe Bruno used his office as Senate majority leader to feather his own nest. They have used the full weight of the law to bring forth an impressive array of witnesses. If Bruno is convicted of this crime, they had better start building a separate prison exclusively for politicians.
My bet is that the feds will use the law to clean up the mess in Albany because the Legislature doesn’t seem capable of reforming itself. The problem for the feds is that the statute itself is under attack. U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was convicted under it, only to have a federal judge reverse the conviction. Bruno’s lawyer was admonished by the judge in the case for calling the statute “squishy.”
If the near octogenarian Joe Bruno gets sent to the slammer, you can bet there will be a whole lot of people in line behind him. You’d have to live in Never Never Land not to understand just how endemic this is in the political process. It’s as American as apple pie. In fact, using one’s connections goes on throughout American life. Mothers, wives, fathers, sisters and brothers are historic beneficiaries. People want to do favors for politicians and in the back of their heads, trust me — they expect something in return. Broadly speaking, there is more self-help going on in the Legislature than in all of those books you see at the book store.
Joe Bruno has always known that if you serve your constituents well, you will be returned to office. I’ve often said that if Joe Bruno put one more thing in the city of Troy, the whole city would sink. A lot of people in Rensselaer County will swear eternal allegiance to Joe Bruno for all the bacon he has brought home. No matter that it wasn’t right for one senator to have more than the others because of his powerful position. Hey, if your roads and bridges are better kept than those in other districts, tough noogies. That’s the way it is.
But Bruno could have opened a butcher shop; that’s how much pork he brought home. One of his beneficiaries may well end up on a federal jury. As we have seen in the many trials of “Junior” Gotti, all it takes is one juror to say no. Of course, they have tried “Junior” several times and show no signs of letting up.
On the other hand, when the feds are after you, they have a lot to work with, including the full power of the United States government. They can offer immunity to the people who may have been trying to bribe you, to get them to testify against you. One lawyer once told me, “When the feds want you, they’ll get you for something.”
It is instructive that this case is brought by the federal government. Our state politics are too incestuous for one hand to bite the other. In a way, one could have seen this coming. The greedier the state Legislature has become, the more necessary it has become to find a creative solution. One assemblyman, Anthony Seminerio, has already been cooked because of his so-called “consulting company,” which might have been called the “Pay To Play Company.” Seminerio made the classic mistake of speaking into a wire.
When the feds, aided by the reporting of the Albany Times Union, turned up the heat, Bruno resigned his powerful position. There were reports that he offered to go quietly if the feds dropped the case. That clearly didn’t happen.
What Joe has going against him is the perception that greed and avarice are out of control in the politics of the Empire State. People are fed up and think that someone had better do something. The wagons will be circled.
Understanding what is at stake here, politicians will testify in favor of Bruno, although my bet is that some will be very recalcitrant lest the feds come knocking at their door, handcuffs clanging at their side. Make no mistake about it: this trial is about a lot more than what one man may have done to feather his own nest. A lot of politicians must be sweating and thinking, “If they can do it to him, will I be next?”
Originally Published in The Legislative Gazette, 11/03/09