WXXI Local Stories
4:36 pm
Tue December 8, 2009

Bruno Conviction Spurs Talk of State Ethics Reform

Albany, New York – Now that the former State Senate Majority Leader, Joe Bruno, one of the most powerful men in Albany has been convicted of two felony corruption charges, there's a push on to reform what critics say are the lax ethics laws at the state Capitol.

Bruno joins former Governor Eliot Spitzer, and former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, in the list of state politicians who have had to leave office because of corruption charges or convictions in the past three years. Bruno retired from the Senate in June of 2008, after it was revealed that federal prosecutors had been combing his business records for nearly a year.

Government reform advocates, including Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, ask how many more hints do Albany's remaining politicians need to realize that state ethics laws need to be strengthened. Ethics reform is currently stalled in the State Senate.

"If the Senate Majority Leader of the State of New York goes down in political corruption, if that doesn't spur the Senate to act, I don't know what will," said Horner.

The Senate sponsor of ethics reform legislation, Senator Dan Squadron, who represents lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, says it's "critical" that the Senate pass ethics reforms legislation as early in the 2010 legislative session as possible.

"There's no question that we need comprehensive ethics reform in Albany," said Squadron. "The federal courts shouldn't be the only venue that deal with accusations of wrongdoing."

Bruno was convicted in federal court on two counts of improperly using his political influence for monetary gain, and hiding that information from the public. He received tens of thousands of dollars, including $80,000 for the sale of what federal prosecutors called a "worthless" race horse, from business associate Jared Abbruzzese. In exchange, the prosecutors charged, and the jury agreed Bruno gave Abbruzzese's companies political favors, including a half million dollar member item for a tech company.

Under current financial disclosure rules, Bruno, and all other state lawmakers, only had to report whether he earned more than $5000 from any outside employment. That information is then redacted from any forms made available for the public to see.

Senator Squadron calls that loophole the "Bruno gap" in state ethics laws, and says it has to be corrected. NYPIRG's Horner agrees, and says the Senate must act soon to replace the controversial Public Integrity Commission with an independent ethics panel that oversees both the executive and legislative branches of government, and has subpoena powers to probe alleged wrong doing. He says details of legislators' outside employment needs to be much more transparent.

Bruno maintained through out the trial that he was simply an honest businessman trying to make a living for his family, and that as a part time legislator, he was entitled to do outside work in his area of expertise. Horner says it's true that a part time legislature allows members to have outside jobs, but he says there has to be limit on what can and can't be done.

"They're not allowed to have outside business that they run from their public office," said Horner. Testimony in the Bruno trial indicated that Senate staff helped Bruno run his consulting business.

"They're not entitled to have close personal relationships with lobbyists where they accept , it turns out, illegal gifts, " said Horner.

The New York State Assembly approved ethics reform legislation earlier this year, and Assembly Democrats have said they were willing to go even further in enacting stricter laws, if the Senate agrees.

In the meantime, federal prosecutors have warned if business as usual in Albany continues, they could seek more indictments of state officials. In a statement, The US Attorney for New York's Northern District, Andrew Baxter, said while "prosecutors took no pleasure in what the trial revealed about the culture of the New York State Senate" under the leadership of Joe Bruno, prosecutors "will continue to strive to ensure that public officials who breach their public trust will be held accountable".