Editorial: Bruno’s request for reimbursement of legal fees is dubious
Joe Bruno got the best defense money could buy.
And now he wants to stick taxpayers with the bill.
The former majority leader of the state Senate was acquitted by a federal jury last Friday of two bribery charges based on allegations that he accepted phony “consulting fees” from a wealthy businessman in exchange for his influence in obtaining access to government officials, money and power.
Now Bruno wants the state to reimburse him for more than $4 million in legal fees he said he accrued while defending himself against these charges.
State Public Officers Law Section 19 allows the state attorney general to reimburse state officers and employees who have been charged and acquitted of crimes that occurred while the individual was acting “within the scope of his or her public employment or duties.”
Before the attorney general writes Bruno a check, we have a few issues.
First, Bruno was not acquitted in the first case, nor were charges dismissed. He was found guilty of two counts of mail fraud under an existing law in effect at the time. A conflicting decision in a similar case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court prompted an appeals court to vacate his conviction. If he was found guilty of a crime, there’s no reason taxpayers should reimburse him.
Second, the Public Officers Law, both Section 19 for criminal prosecutions and Section 17 for civil action, is there to protect government officials from being unfairly targeted by malicious or frivolous legal action in the course of performing their public duties. This was not a frivolous or malicious prosecution.
Bruno was indicted by two separate federal grand juries, who determined there was evidence to commence with a trial, and convicted by one jury.
In addition, a mid-level appeals court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to charge Bruno again, without violating double-jeopardy. The prosecution was certainly reasonable, given the circumstances.
Third, Bruno didn’t just hire some ambulance chasers to defend himself. He hired E. Stewart Jones, one of the most revered criminal defense law firms in the country. Section 19 says taxpayers should have to pay “reasonable attorneys’ fees.” Is it “reasonable” for taxpayers to give Bruno or any public official the best defense money can buy? There are thousands of indigent criminal defendants in New York who are entitled to taxpayer-funded legal representation who either don’t receive it at all or who receive shoddy representation. Yet Bruno, in another example of the influence of wealth and power, feels entitled to taxpayer reimbursement for top-shelf representation.
Finally, while the charges related to the use of Bruno’s influence as Senate majority leader, it was his questionable role as a business consultant while serving in that position that was called into question during his trials.
In fact, wasn’t the crux of his defense that the money he was paid was for consulting? He never would have been accused of taking bribes were it not for his consulting role, he claimed. Should taxpayers foot the legal bill for accusations that arose from a private business relationship?
In what way did the charges against Bruno relate to the performance of his duties, other than that he was in office at the time? Even he says one had nothing to do with the other. In what way was Bruno unfairly targeted with frivolous or malicious prosecution? In what way are his exorbitant legal fees “reasonable?”
Those are among the questions Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will have to ask himself while considering Bruno’s request for taxpayer reimbursement for his legal fees.
If he can’t find answers sufficient to justify this huge taxpayer largesse, his answer to Mr. Bruno should be a resounding no.