DECEMBER 9, 2009
‘REFORM RINGS HOLLOW AS CAPITOL ROGUES’ GALLERY GROWS
Bruno’s felonies cast harsh light again on state’s political culture
By ROBERT J. McCARTHY
First, it was former State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi pleading guilty in 2006 to defrauding the state.
Then scandal felled the governor himself in 2008, when Eliot L. Spitzer got caught in a prostitution ring.
Now one of Albany’s most powerful figures of recent years — former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno — joins a long list of state Capitol titans consumed by what critics call Albany’s culture of corruption.
Following Bruno’s Monday conviction on two felony charges of depriving the public of his “honest services,” those same critics express little optimism that the shame now worn by one of Albany’s “three men in a room” will spur any kind of meaningful reform.
They say the laws already exist to protect taxpayers from conflicts of interest such as Bruno’s. What’s lacking are enough people to quit looking the other way.
“If the good-government groups, editorial boards and some elected officials think that changing the law will stop the next Joe Bruno, they’re wrong,” said David M. Grandeau, former executive director of the State Commission on Lobbying. “The only thing that will prevent the next scandal is people willing to do the right thing and enforce the rules we have.”
In some respects, Monday’s conviction of the Rensselaer County Republican for making about $3 million through a consulting company with some clients holding state contracts ranks as ho-hum news in Albany. After all, it’s the same town that spawned Hevesi and Spitzer and more:
• Former Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, a one-time U.S. surgeon general, was convicted earlier this year of using state workers for personal business.
• Clarence Norman Jr., a former assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic boss, is behind bars after being convicted on extortion and other charges.
• Former Assembly Speaker Mel Miller was convicted of fraud in 1991, and State Sen. Guy J. Velella went to jail for bribery conspiracy in 2004.
• Several other state legislators, mostly from New York City, also have stood before a judge in recent years.
It all spurs Grandeau to point to “reforms” such as Spitzer’s abolition of the Commission on Lobbying and its replacement with the Public Integrity Commission in response to past scandals. But he calls them meaningless when 12 of the 13 members of the new commission are lawyers who are not required to divulge their clients, just like many legislators working in the private sector.
He predicts that the next response will be a new law requiring legislators to list outside clients, except for lawyers and other exceptions that will render the measure toothless.
“They’ll all go around patting each other on the back and acting like that guy in ‘Casablanca’: ‘I’m shocked that there’s gambling in the next room,’” Grandeau said.
Others who have been there share similar feelings. Former State Sen. Seymour P. Lachman, D-Brooklyn, goes even further in his condemnation of Bruno and the Albany culture in which he thrived. He said that it all reflects what he addressed in his book “Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse.”
“It really is more than outrageous and unseemly,” the former senator said. “It has to be changed. The question is whether it will be changed.”
Lachman’s book has become a bible of sorts to Albany reformers because it is regarded as an expose of state government. In it, he outlines why he left the Senate in disgust, and he now says Bruno is emblematic of all he exposed.
“The entire operation in Albany is also guilty,” said Lachman, now a professor of government at Wagner College on Staten Island. “It’s going to have to be dealt with … because there’s no question others are doing the same thing.”
Lachman said that even if Bruno had been found innocent, his trial has exposed Albany’s inner workings to new scrutiny.
Is it right, he asked, for Bruno’s taxpayer-funded employees to help him conduct his private business?
Or is it proper for someone of such influence to maintain any business that intersects with his state position?
“No bill I know of has ever failed the Senate if it had the support of its leaders,” Lachman said.
“The whole system is going to have to be looked into,” he added, “because the system produced Joe Bruno — Joe Bruno did not produce the system.”
Even before Bruno’s conviction, a host of reforms had been proposed, such as limits on outside work by legislators, tighter revolving-door limits (especially on staffers), a new ethics system that excludes legislators from policing themselves and the usual ideas about limits and disclosure of campaign finances.
But Grandeau said the Bruno trial shows an Albany culture that has evolved to circumvent any new rule that comes along. He pointed to testimony from one Bruno lawyer who said he advised legislators to hand-deliver all ethics disclosure statements to avoid any possibility of mail fraud. “Talk about institutional corruption,” he said.
Even old Bruno allies acknowledge that the trial has raised new questions about the ways of Albany.
Jack Cookfair, the Syracuse political consultant with strong ties to Buffalo, has worked for Bruno since 1975 and has known him longer and better than anyone else from Western New York. Cookfair’s political ads helped sustain the senator for 30 years in his Troy seat, and he was a key cog in the Bruno machine that ruled the Senate for 15 years.
“He’s a really good guy,” Cookfair said of Bruno, 80, who resigned Tuesday as chief executive of the Albany-area CMA Consulting Services. “It must be just a horrible thing for him to go through this, and my heart goes out to him.”
Bruno’s longtime associate says he was never involved with any of the senator’s private business dealings but believes from what he has read that no laws were broken. Still, Cookfair said, the whole affair raises major questions.
“Is it the way Albany should be run?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”
Bruno’s defense of his activity as a legitimate way of earning a living seems to be generating tougher-than-usual calls for reform. Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, calls the Bruno verdict “a political earthquake” for Albany.
“This should be a wake-up call to all legislative members who have outside business interests that they should be very careful about how they divide their public time as public servants and their professional time in their second careers,” he said.
And the Bruno conviction already is entering the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, with Republican candidate Rick Lazio on Tuesday calling for a “fundamental overhaul” of Albany ethics.
“With this conviction stacked on top of many others, Albany is well on its way to earning the title of ‘Corruption Capital of the World’,” said Lazio, a former congressman and U.S. Senate candidate.
“Without fundamental change, the latest patches proposed by our supposed leaders in Albany can never be successful.”
Tom Precious of The News Albany Bureau contributed to this report.