Skip to content

NYT: In Albany, a Legislature Indifferent, if Not Averse, to Ethics Rules

December 9, 2009

In the wake of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s conviction, The New York Times had this interesting piece on the troubling state of ethics rules in Albany:

ALBANY — Here is a lesson learned from the conviction on Monday of Joseph L. Bruno, the former Senate majority leader, on two federal corruption charges.

New York State’s ethics laws do not do much to deter corruption. Rather, they often enable it and even help conceal it from the public.

Thus it was left to the federal government to use a controversial “theft of honest services” law that is facing a Supreme Court challenge to prosecute what was essentially a state corruption case.

Lawmakers left town last week after Democratic leaders of the Legislature failed once again to pass laws overhauling the state’s moribund ethics oversight, capping a daunting year of corruption with a collective shrug.

If nothing else, Mr. Bruno’s trial has highlighted fundamental flaws in state law. Lawmakers are allowed to have second jobs in what has long been considered a citizen Legislature, but are required to disclose very little about their private interests. The Legislature has also insisted on policing itself, with dismal results, while the Commission on Public Integrity, the watchdog agency of the executive branch and lobbyists, has been marred by scandal.

“State ethics and disclosure laws seem to enable a lot of conduct and support the argument — which thankfully wasn’t successful with all of the counts — that the things that Bruno was doing were allowed,” said Andrew T. Baxter, the acting United States attorney for the Northern District of New York, whose office prosecuted Mr. Bruno.

For his part, Mr. Bruno promised to appeal, saying after the jury had rendered its verdict, “It’s far from over.”

But testimony during his trial suggested the Senate often looks over its shoulder in the same way the mob does. Kenneth E. Riddett, a former Senate counsel, said he advised lawmakers to hand-deliver their ethics filings to the Legislative Ethics Commission, explaining that “we had concerns about federal mail fraud statutes, to be honest.”

For Mr. Bruno, one of the state’s three most powerful men for nearly 14 years, the trial suggested little distinction between public and private interests. His longtime Senate secretary did his Christmas shopping, bought family gifts and handled bookkeeping for his private consulting business, which the government contended was little more than a sham used to collect payoffs for political favors.

One Senate assistant was deployed to get estimates for a new roof for Mr. Bruno’s home ($11,180, including “architectural shingles with a 30-year warranty”). Another Senate aide was told to meet with a salesman for Wright Investors’ Service, a Connecticut firm that hired Mr. Bruno to encourage local union officials to invest pension funds with them.

Mr. Bruno’s ethics filings disclosed little beyond listing Wright’s parent, the Winthrop Corporation, and his private consulting business. State law did not require him to divulge how much he made, who his clients were or if there were potential conflicts.

That left even other officials in the dark. In 2004, Mr. Bruno was the host of a meeting between state officials and a software company called Asentinel, without mentioning that he would receive a commission for bringing new business to the company. In 1995, when he was pushing the state to hire I.B.M. for a project, he quietly collected fees from an I.B.M. subcontractor. And when he directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid to Evident Technologies, a company in the Albany area, he was being paid by one of its investors, Jared E. Abbruzzese.

Ultimately, it was Mr. Bruno’s relationship with Mr. Abbruzzese that led to his conviction on two felony counts; he was acquitted of five others, and a mistrial was declared on an eighth. (On Tuesday, Mr. Bruno, 80, resigned as chief executive at CMA Consulting Services, a company outside Albany that hired Mr. Bruno in 2008 after he retired from the Senate amid a federal investigation.)

Mr. Abbruzzese’s testimony was particularly revealing: Mr. Bruno, he said, was envious of the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. “He started talking about Sheldon Silver and how Sheldon Silver was getting paid 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars a month from the Trial Lawyers Association,” Mr. Abbruzzese testified. Mr. Bruno wanted Mr. Abbruzzese to put him on retainer, and he obliged.

Mr. Silver actually works for Weitz & Luxenberg, the giant Manhattan personal injury firm, not the state trial lawyers association. But Mr. Abbruzzese’s confusion was understandable. Arthur M. Luxenberg, one of the firm’s named partners, is a longtime officer of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, and Mr. Silver often defends the association’s interests in Albany.

What Mr. Silver does at the firm has been an Albany mystery. In a statement, the firm said Mr. Silver represented “individual claimants in personal injury actions” and handled eight or nine cases a year, although his name has not appeared in any public legal documents in years.

The Assembly recently rejected a request from The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of e-mail messages between Weitz & Luxenberg and the Assembly. Indeed, the Legislature has written open-records rules to shield itself from disclosure rules that apply to the executive branch.

“State ethics laws for the Legislature are an irrelevancy,” said Senator Daniel L. Squadron, a freshman Democrat who represents parts of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Mr. Squadron has been the rare legislator to seek tougher ethics laws, and has even drafted legislation to address what he calls “the Bruno gap,” but his efforts have met with roadblocks by his colleagues.

Good government groups have a lengthy wish list. The policing of ethics has to be overhauled, particularly for the Legislature, they say. And lawmakers, even those who are lawyers, in most cases must disclose their clients, and there must be a clear ban on lawmakers using state money to benefit business partners.

While the jury spent seven days deliberating at the Bruno trial, Blair Horner, the legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the case had “already led to one conviction: New York’s ethics laws stink.”

  1. Doc99 permalink
    January 23, 2010 12:30 pm

    There are few problems with Albany that would not be solved by Term Limits and changing Legislator from a part-time to full-time job. Outside income should not be disclosed. It should be prohibited. That Sheldon Silver, for example, can state there’ll be tort reform in NY State “over his dead body” while in the employ of plaintiffs’ firm Weitz & Luxenberg redefines chutzpah.

  2. Wag-the- Dog permalink
    January 23, 2010 1:44 pm

    No, it’s power politics. Get in the real world.

    No tort reform, no No-Fault reform— Brooklyn, highest auto insurance rates in the country.

    Everybody knows, nobody cares (enough to do anything about it) … including the locally elected Republican-Conservative here in Brooklyn.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: