Former state senate boss Joe Bruno’s speech at his criminal sentencing yesterday was so full of self-applause that you almost expected him to just keep going and announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor. Bruno’s 40-minute spiel in Albany federal court came just before the judge imposed a two-year prison term for ripping off the voters. His rap was like the one always trotted out by Willie Stark, that great Man of the People in that classic of American corruption, All the King’s Men, who understood that audiences are always suckers for a hard-luck story about a self-made man.
“I was called a Dago, a wop, a guinea, I was kicked around,” moaned the silver-haired pol from the North Country. “I had the most miserable childhood anyone could have. It taught me to work and earn whatever you can honestly.”
Like Stark, the Huey Long-style southern governor in Robert Penn Warren’s story, Bruno said he’d learned those lessons from his old man. “I grew up with my father saying, if you didn’t earn it, it didn’t belong to you. My father would never go on welfare because he didn’t earn it.”
Actually, welfare recipients are only eligible if they make full and honest disclosure of their holdings and earnings, something the jury found unanimously that Bruno somehow never managed to do. That wasn’t his fault, he said yesterday. His senate lawyers told him he didn’t have to.
“Whose lawyers?” interrupted U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe. “Were they doing your private business while they were on the public payroll?” Sharpe singled out one of the golden moments of last fall’s trial, when testimony revealed that Bruno’s lawyers had advised the entire Republican caucus in the senate to walk their state personal financial disclosure statements up to the clerk’s office rather than mail them, in order to avoid a possible federal mail fraud rap if they were ever caught lying.
“Disgusting,” said the judge yesterday. But he was talking to a wall.
“In my heart and my mind I did nothing wrong. Nothing,” said the ex-pol who confessed to only the usual sins of great and powerful men: “Maybe I used bad judgment and maybe I was cavalier in my business dealings… I know I wasn’t bribed. I know I didn’t extort anyone. I knew I hadn’t conspired.”
Willie Stark felt the same way. “Money? I don’t need money,” he said. “People give me things… because they believe in me.”
It makes for a perfect finishing touch to this tale that Bruno’s last best hope for staying out of prison is that the Supreme Court may overturn the law under which he was convicted, a statute that insists that elected officials owe voters their honest services — an obviously outlandish and outdated notion.
This week, state senator Eric Schneiderman, who watched Bruno’s shenanigans from the opposite side of the aisle for years, introduced a bill that would make Bruno-style self-dealing a clear-cut felony. Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance, who helped write the legislation, seconded that motion.
Schneiderman, of course, wants to be the state’s next top crime buster as attorney general and needs to put as much distance as possible between himself and state senate skulduggery. But you’d think that the current Attorney General — the man who would be governor — would have had something to say about the Bruno case, which gave New Yorkers their best tutorial yet on Albany’s political plague. Did Andrew Cuomo say something about this? Did we miss it?
Willie Stark understood the problem: “Dirt’s a funny thing,” he says. “Some of it rubs off on everybody.”