ALBANY—One of the more colorful figures to grace the Capitol–and rise to its inner circle of control–has been convicted on two counts in a federal fraud trial. For those who decried the nebulous oversight that has characterized the political culture here for so many years, there is hope for a substantive reform, finally.
“I think the fact that somebody in Joe Bruno’s position didn’t understand–and apparently still doesn’t understand where the appropriate line is between ethical and legal behavior says volumes about the lack of ethical enforcement in Albany,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause. “I think we need to get beyond helpful to actual revision. I hope that this is the necessary push that the legislature needs to get over the hump.”
Bruno was acquitted on more counts–five–than he was convicted, Lerner noted. (Jurors failed to reach a verdict on a last count.) But the fact that he was found guilty could be taken as a signal that the law as currently written works, even though the federal prosecutors who brought the case described the current system in Albany is “Byzantine.”
Lerner’s group and others have advocated for measures–which failed the to pass in the State Senate this summer–that would increase oversight of the state board of elections and separate the oversight of lobbyists and executive officials; both are currently under the purview of the Commission on Public Integrity.
Negotiations are currently underway to develop a bill on which the Senate, Assembly and governor can agree. I’ve heard from several legislators in recent weeks–as his trial laid bare the style of political business and jurors deliberated for seven days–that a conviction would be an impetus for action. Given the current anti-incumbent sentiments of voters, action will come as much out of political necessity as anything else.
“The window into business in Albany that the Bruno trial provided, and frankly the fact that he was acquitted on a lot of counts involving that really should not be legal is a message that we need to change the law regarding private business dealings by legislators and ethics in Albany,” Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat who served with Bruno in the chamber, said.
Schneiderman, like many, has watched the trial closely. And like many–particularly Bruno’s Republican colleagues–his emotional state was far from joyous.
“No one likes to see someone they like convicted,” he said.
Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the Senate majority said that ethics reform is the chamber”s “top priority.” Dan Weiller, a spokesman for the Assembly majority, said “we’re working with the Senate now on a stronger ethics bill,” a version of which the Assembly passed in June.