The conviction of State Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno on corruption charges doesn’t settle the issues of corruption or unethical behavior in Albany.
Indeed it may leave the public with more questions than answers.
The federal law under which the jury found Bruno guilty makes it a crime to use wires or the mail to deprive constituents of honest services by hiding conflicts of interests. This very issue will soon be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. If the court strikes down the law, it could help Bruno’s appeal.
The idea that people can work part-time as legislators and have their own outside businesses goes back to the beginning of the republic. But it has long seemed obsolete. Senators and assemblymen now get yearly salaries of $79,500.
It’s easy to understand why many think it’s necessary to earn additional income outside the chamber. But the basic question here is: what’s a legitimate outside business activity and what’s illegitimate?
The prosecutor said: “We established at this trial that Bruno exploited his office by concealing the nature and source of substantial payments that he received from parties that benefited from his official actions.”
Most perplexing is: Can something be done about what happened here?
Apparently, Bruno was done in with the jury by his relationship to Jared Abbruzzese, a businessman who sought his help for various firms, including a nanotechnology company seeking state money.
The prosecution emphasized that Bruno had concealed the payments he received from people that benefited from his official actions.
Thus, the issue was reduced to the fact that there was a lack of transparency here, that the Senate majority leader had taken what amounted to hundreds of thousand dollars in gifts from Abbruzzese and various other companies.
Blair Horner, who heads NYPIRG, a reform group in Albany, says a senator has a right to have an outside job but “he has no right to run it in a sleazy way.” Thus, he pointed out, Bruno was running private business out of his Senate office. Bruno’s secretary, who was on the state payroll, was handling his business correspondence
Said Horner: “Bruno blurred the distinction between state business and private business. He mixed it up -- and the public has a right to expect he is serving them.
“There’s no stopping him from walking across the street to a separate office to conduct his private business but, to do both from the government office, is not right.”
Horner and other reformers believe there has to be independent oversight of government to make sure things are being done in a lawful and ethical manner. The Executive branch of government has a commission on public integrity [the majority of the members appointed by the Governor] and the Legislature has an Ethics Commission, according to Horner “with no real power or staff.”
Philosophers spend lifetimes searching for such things as truth. Transparency in government seems as elusive.
The spectacle in Albany is jarring. Citizens Union says that 14 lawmakers have now left because of criminal or unethical conduct, 10 since 2005. Former Governor Elliot Spitzer and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi resigned under fire.
New York and New Jersey seem to be locked in a close struggle to decide which state is more corrupt.
Somehow a way must be found to get independent people -- free of ties to the Legislature or the executive branch of government -- to oversee the government and the people who are supposed to serve us.
How would you find such good, independent, honest souls?
You can’t legislate that. It’s perplexing.