Bruno case politics as usual
Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in the Capital Region, but I don’t think of former State Sen. Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno as my beloved Uncle Joe.
When I arrived in town, he was one of the three most powerful men in the state, presiding over a corrupt and dysfunctional state government. I saw him as part of the problem, which is why it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that many of his constituents viewed him quite differently. After writing an article in 2008 about the numerous buildings and structures that bear Bruno’s name, I remember remarking on the senator’s undying popularity.
“People just love Joe Bruno,” I said.
It was an important lesson.
It helped me understand that good politicians take steps to ensure that they never lose the support of their home district.
They obtain funding for big projects, such as the Joseph L. Bruno Stadium at Hudson Valley Community College, but also for smaller organizations — the libraries, the youth organizations, the arts centers. On the outside, this might smack of pork barrel politics. But constituents usually appreciate a politician who brings home the bacon.
That is why I wasn’t surprised to hear that passers-by were congratulating Bruno after he was acquitted of federal corruption charges on Friday. Nor was I surprised to learn that many people felt that federal prosecutors went overboard in their pursuit of an 85-year-old man with cancer.
Of course, I thought. People just love Joe Bruno.
And while I don’t intend to defend Bruno — who got about the best defense money can buy from attorney E. Stewart Jones — I agree with the jury: Federal prosecutors failed to prove that he did anything illegal.
They painted an ugly picture of how state government works and the sleazy relationships politicians cultivate while in office. But they never established the illegality of Bruno’s dealings and questionable relationship with Loudonville businessman Jared Abbruzzese. They showed us an unethical and dishonorable system, but never demonstrated that Bruno did anything criminal.
Sure, the ex-senator accepted a $20,000-a-month consulting job from Abbruzzese, and made about $360,000 overall. And nobody can point to any actual work Bruno produced, or even say exactly what he did as a consultant.
Prosecutors contended that the payments from Abbruzzese were bribes, intended to steer grants to the businessman’s companies and win support for Abbruzzese’s efforts to take control of the state thoroughbred racing franchise. But the defense successfully depicted the Bruno-Abbruzzese relationship as legitimate private business consulting, and Bruno’s actions as legitimate legislative activity.
In other words, the Bruno-Abbruzzese relationship was politics — and business — as usual.
And while it might not look good, and it might not sound good, there was nothing illegal about it, which is unfortunate.
It should be illegal for state lawmakers to accept consulting jobs worth tens of thousands of dollars from clients who want something from state government. Under a system that permits this practice, voters will always lose, while politicians and businesses will almost win, enriching themselves at taxpayer expense.
After the Bruno verdict, I suspect that all of the other state politicians with lucrative consulting gigs, such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, are breathing a sigh of relief.
This was Bruno’s second trial for honest services fraud.
In 2009, a jury found him guilty of two counts tied to Abbruzzese, but the conviction was reversed after the U.S. Supreme Court changed the definition of honest services fraud to require proof that accused elected officials took bribes or kickbacks, rather than just had hidden conflicts of interest.
I’m not someone who believes Bruno’s advanced age, health issues or popularity should absolve him of wrongdoing when he was a senator.
But I’m ready to move on from this case.
After all, the corrupt, dysfunctional system known as the state Legislature still exists.
And after the Bruno verdict, you have to wonder: Is there any hope of ever cleaning it up?
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at email@example.com or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.