Why did the feds target Bruno in the first place?
In the end, former Senate Republican Majority Leader Joe Bruno was done in by a horse. As the news came down that a jury had found him guilty under the federal “Theft of honest services act,” the old song from Guys and Dolls, “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere,” went racing through my head. This was a huge and expensive case put on by the feds against Bruno. The jury clearly wanted to give the guy every break but they just couldn’t get past one thing: Bruno sold a semi-worthless nag to Jared Abbruzzese, a business client who, under a grant of immunity from prosecution, admitted on the stand that he saw the purchase of the horse as a way of compensating Bruno for past services undertaken on Abbruzzese’s behalf. This was the so-called “smoking gun.”
The law under which Bruno was prosecuted and convicted, the so-called “honest services” statute, is now being tested by the Supreme Court. It is likely to be ruled unconstitutional because of its broad and vague sweep that could trap millions of Americans for playing scrabble at their work computers and thereby depriving their employers of “honest services.”
So why did the Feds, under a then Republican administration, indict Bruno? There are lots of theories about this. One is that the Justice Department saw things getting out of hand in New York. This theory posits that legislators, including Bruno, were using their
offices to enrich themselves. To which we all respond with a loud and collective, “Duh!” Has it ever been different? We all know people who have gone to politicians as lawyers or consultants on the theory that they know the judges and the commissioners and the governors and can “fix things.”
Since the state Legislature won’t pass anything but self-serving laws, every once in a while the federal government has to step in to clean things up. That’s how they got Al Capone and a bunch of other gangsters, using whatever they had, including the income tax and mail fraud laws. This is the best theory, from a public policy point of view. It portrays the feds as the Lone Ranger, riding in to keep things honest.
There are other explanatory theories, including the one that pitted two Republican gangs against one another. One was led by Bruno, the other by George Pataki, the then Governor. There was a huge fight going on between the two groups. George W. Bush was in the Pataki corner and he had what we now know was a very political Justice Department where prosecutors were alleged to have lost their heads for not being partisan enough and prosecuting political enemies. This theory suggests that Bruno was targeted because the White House wasn’t happy with him.
Whatever the reason, the eighty year old Bruno was indicted and has now been convicted. The bigger story is that the curtain has now been drawn to expose the way in which influence is bought and sold in the Legislature. One of the great ironies is that Bruno may be having trouble raising defense money. Since he quit and is out of power, the usual sources may not be willing to “buy in” to Bruno and give him money to defend himself. He may have quit figuring that the feds would go away and leave him alone but when he did that, he cut off his own potential to raise money. One can only imagine that he is now scratching his head and wondering whether he was thinking straight.
There are all kinds of moves in the Legislature to tighten things up. I am sure that under pressure, the Legislature will do something but I am equally sure that in the end it won’t end up being much. Mark my words — they are not about to cut their own throats. Oh, they will do something, the good government groups will hail whatever is done as a major advance to demonstrate their own efficacy, and in no time at all we will be back to the status quo. And, by the way, I predict that Joe Bruno will not serve a day in a federal penitentiary.
Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 12/14/09