Joe Bruno and the Life Fantastic
One of the best snapshots of the wonderful world that Joe Bruno inhabited was a memo to the former State Senate leader from one of his many aides: On April 11, 2005, Amy Leitch—Bruno's $93,000-a-year special assistant—wrote to update her boss on several important matters.
Matter number one was a contractor's estimate for a new roof on the veteran lawmaker's farmhouse in nearby Brunswick. The cost would be $11,180, she wrote. The bid included a 30-year warranty on the roof shingles and a four-year guarantee on the work itself. If Bruno didn't like that number, she informed him, another builder was due to offer his own estimate for the job the following week.
It is widely accepted that elected office carries certain perks. Among these are choice parking spots, no waiting in line, and reserved seats at public concerts. But the corruption trial of Joe Bruno over the past month has provided an entirely new tutorial on the depth and scope of political entitlement. Who knew, for instance, that it was standard procedure for your Senate secretary to arrange a roofing job for your own house?
Matter number two on Leitch's memo concerned an even better benefit: This involved a meeting that the senator's staff was arranging for a trucking mogul with the state official in charge of rebuilding the World Trade Center site. The trucker, a man named Russell Ball, was then paying Bruno $20,000 per month in exchange for the Senate leader's sage advice. What Ball was hoping, as he later put it on the witness stand, was that Bruno would help "change the culture" of Ball's company, Roadway Contracting Inc. of Brooklyn. Part of the cultural change that Ball was seeking was access to those signing checks for the huge, multibillion-dollar downtown rebuilding effort.
Who better to arrange a meeting with the leaders of the state's Lower Manhattan Development Corporation than Joe Bruno? The silver-haired Republican was not only the key figure in the success or failure of every piece of legislation affecting the site, he was a top member of the corporation's General Advisory Council. He was also, of course, a great patriot who had passionately declared that rebuilding downtown was another way to show the terrorists that Americans cannot be bullied. And if he happened to know a trucker who was fully capable of handling part of this task, why shouldn't he make sure that development officials got a chance to meet him?
On the bottom of the memo, as was his style, Bruno penned a short response to the meeting plan. It was this: "Ken Riddett supposed to be setting up—let me know." This was another example of the marvelous public-private partnership that Bruno had established for himself: Riddett, at the time, was the $180,000-per-year general counsel to the New York State Senate.
More precise details about how the senator's Albany aides were enlisted in the support of all things Bruno came from his executive assistant of 24 years, Patricia Stackrow, who testified at the trial in federal court. Stackrow's state salary was $100,000 a year and she worked hard for the money, she said, as much as 80 hours a week. In addition to handling the senator's schedule and appointments, she also opened and responded to all of his personal mail, balanced checkbooks for Bruno and his wife, and did his personal shopping.
Stackrow was asked what kind of shopping she was talking about? "Christmas shopping, gifts for his family, gifts for his wife," she answered.
Every morning, Stackrow testified, Bruno handed her a packet of his unopened personal mail, which she would then sort through. She would prepare the checks for him to sign in order to keep his bills paid. She endorsed incoming checks from the senator's various businesses, handing them to the senator's state driver to take to the bank to deposit. She kept a ledger as well, which tracked the senator's household expenses, along with those of his horse-breeding enterprise, Mountain View Farm, and any other costs associated with his affairs.
This nonstop private work by public servants on Joe Bruno's personal behalf was ongoing at the same time that another top state official ran afoul of ethics investigators in late 2006. The complaint against former state comptroller Alan Hevesi was that he had allowed a state driver to chauffeur his badly ailing wife around while being paid on the state's dime. This violation created a great public outcry and eventually resulted in Hevesi's resignation and guilty plea to a felony charge of defrauding the government.
Back then, some of the loudest catcalls from the sidelines demanding that Hevesi come clean about his terrible transgressions came from none other than State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno. In fact, Bruno gets credit for being the very first official to call on Hevesi to quit for having brought disgrace on his office. The Senate chieftain insisted that the comptroller's abuses were so extreme that they had "eroded public confidence in him as the state's chief fiscal officer and have damaged his credibility beyond repair."
During his decade-plus as chief of the State Senate, Joe Bruno was much praised by those who encountered him. He was a man's man, an ex-boxer, a former sergeant in the infantry in Korea, whose love of horses and the simple life he imparted to all who visited his gracious farm in Rensselaer County. He was also, as the two-week-long trial definitively proved, a man without any shame whatsoever who was himself actively engaged in massive fraud of taxpayers.
The question now is whether Bruno's former legislative colleagues are sufficiently shamed by the trial's revelations to finally do something about it. Pending in the legislature is a bill that would close some of the loopholes that Bruno so thoroughly exploited in order to keep his lucrative private-consultant work a secret. Bruno never had to publicly disclose just how much he was earning in outside income. The new bill would at least let us see what category he fell into: $250,000 or more? $1 million or above?
Likewise, Bruno wasn't obligated to say if any of his clients happened to be lobbyists with business pending before the legislature that he was in a position to assist. The new bill would disclose those ties. Also for the first time, a new legislative ethics commission would actually be charged with investigating—by random audit—the annual financial disclosure forms filed by lawmakers. Thanks to the Bruno trial, we now know that legislative leaders worried not at all about deceiving state regulators. But Bruno had his counsel instruct members of his Republican caucus never to send their statements through the U.S. mail, lest they fall prey to federal fraud statutes.
"It was all pretty shocking," says bill sponsor Daniel Squadron, the first-term senator representing Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, of the Bruno trial. "We shouldn't have to rely on the feds for enforcement."
The bill would also break up the state's current Commission on Public Integrity, created by former governor Eliot Spitzer, divvying up its chores among new separate arms to monitor lobbyists and state workers. This would supposedly boost ethics enforcement firepower, but it is an odd way to respond to the Bruno scandal. In recent months, the commission sanctioned several powerful unions that had hosted expensive soirees where legislators were wined and dined. It took the added and unprecedented step of sending the names of the legislators who attended over to the current Legislative Ethics Commission for possible action. "There is this sense of entitlement out there, and we have been trying to change the culture," says commission director Barry Ginsberg.
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