Albany Times-Union: Mr. Bruno’s Ethical Legacy

Mr. Bruno’s ethical legacy

Albany Times-Union

May 17, 2014

THE ISSUE:

Former state Sen. Joseph L. Bruno’s acquittal leaves a cloud over the government.

THE STAKES:

Unless the Legislature fixes the law and tightens the rules, the system remains suspect.

There you have it, New York: It is perfectly legal for an elected official to take tens of thousands of dollars a month from a businessman who has a clear interest in what that official can get government to do for him.

That’s not bribery. So said a federal jury in the corruption trial of Joseph L. Bruno, the former Senate majority leader, once one of the state’s most powerful men.

Not a crime? It ought to be.

Mr. Bruno walks away from this case a free man, and that no doubt will come as a relief to many people who, understandably, couldn’t imagine putting this 85-year-old man in prison. Joe Bruno is beloved by many citizens. He used his power to do a lot for the Capital Region, and we’re grateful for that.

But the lawmakers who now run state government are not off the hook. It falls on them to make good on their perennial promises to clean up Albany, starting with the problems this trial exposed.

They can start by making what Mr. Bruno did illegal.

Somewhere between corruption and wholesome public service lies an apparently gray area in which Mr. Bruno could approve a $250,000 state grant to Evident Technologies five days after Loudonville businessman Jared E. Abbruzzese, who had a stake in Evident, hired the Senate’s boss as a consultant at $20,000 a month. The grant was part of $1.5 million in public funds Mr. Bruno had lined up for the firm, but the installments were delayed until shortly after Mr. Bruno was given the consulting work.

Mr. Bruno would eventually take in $360,000 in consulting fees between 2004 and 2006, though what he did for the money no one seemed to be able to clearly say in the trial. Nor has Mr. Bruno. Mr. Abbruzzese also took a horse off Mr. Bruno’s hands for another $80,000 in payments and loan forgiveness.

Not bribery, though. Not a violation of the honest services the public expects from elected officials. So says a jury, and that’s the law.

Clearly, the law needs fixing. It’s not enough for public officials to simply disclose such entanglements on a state ethics form. It should be illegal for them to do business this way — that is, to take money from somebody doing business with the state they can influence. If that puts a crimp in some politicians’ finances, there’s a simple solution: Don’t run.

While we’re on the topic of disclosure, the Legislature should close the loopholes and exemptions that still exist in the rules. Why, for example, are legislators’ real estate and insurance clients exempted from reporting? Why does fuzzy language still remain on the forms that arguably allows lawyers to hide their relationships with certain kinds of clients whom they or their firms may represent on a variety of matters, some exempt, some not?

And let’s not forget the still-corrupted campaign finance system in New York, with its absurdly high limits on contributions and vague restrictions on politicians’ personal use of that money.

But, like Mr. Bruno’s consulting fees, there’s nothing criminal about that. So say the politicians who make the rules.

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