Liberals and conservatives don’t agree on much these days, but the Supreme Court’s recent decision to weaken a broad anti-corruption statute was unambiguously unanimous. In ruling that parts of the so-called “honest services” law was far too vague, the Court essentially built on the courtroom cliché that a good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich. Under the “honest services” law, the Court agreed, a jury could easily convict that sandwich for “depriving another” (a burger eater, perhaps?) of “the intangible right to honest services.” Whatever that means.
Former State Senator Joseph Bruno, a Republican who ruled the Legislature’s upper house as majority leader for nearly 15 years, was convicted on fraud charges last year under the “honest services” law. Mr. Bruno, who is 81 years old, was sentenced to two years in prison, although he has been allowed to remain free while the honest services law underwent the Supreme Court’s scrutiny.
The case against Mr. Bruno always was vague. He surely ventured into a gray area when he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from a businessman who had interests before the state. But then again, many of New York’s part-time legislators use their connections and their political juice to advance their outside business interests. Mr. Bruno probably pushed too hard; he certainly should have held himself to a higher standard. The issue now is whether his conviction ought to be overturned, given the Court’s decision that the “honest services” law is too broad. As Justice Scalia wrote in a concurring opinion, “The statute does not answer the question: What is the criterion of guilt?”
More practically, the issue really is Mr. Bruno’s sentence. It is far too harsh for a charge which the Supreme Court now says is too broad and too vague. What’s more, it ignores Mr. Bruno’s decades of public service. He was a voice of reason during the administration of fellow Republican George Pataki, who seemed content to buy popularity with all kinds of expensive goodies. His enabler was Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat who has never been adverse to lots of public spending. Mr. Bruno certainly took care to make sure that his constituents were taken care of, but he also put the brakes on the tax-and-spend policies of New York in the 1990s. Without him, it’s a good bet that Albany would be in an even bigger hole than it is at the moment.
Joe Bruno’s life has been turned upside down over the last two years. The ordeal of a federal investigation and a public trial has been difficult, and the assault on his integrity has been profound. His fall from public grace has been tragic, and while some of Mr. Bruno’s wounds surely are self-inflicted, it’s clear that there is an element of tragedy to this story.
Yes, he has suffered enough. His reputation is shattered, and the memory of his good works forgotten.
He shouldn’t go to prison.