The U.S. Supreme Court, which last week began hearing challenges to the section of federal fraud law used to convict former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, could play a significant role moving forward in the Bruno case as defense attorneys gear up for an appeal.
According to attorney Tom Carr, a partner with the Albany firm Tully Rinckey PLLC, who is unaffiliated with the Bruno case, it’s a real possibility that the high court will throw out the honest services statute, which many observers have criticized as vague. Carr said the law has given prosecutors “way too much latitude” in going after corruption in the public and private sphere. The law makes it a crime to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”
Federal prosecutors relied on the statute in their case against Bruno. They argued he violated the statute by failing to disclose material conflicts of interest in his financial relationships with two investment firms and several businesses and individuals who also had interests before the New York Legislature. Over the course of more than a decade, Bruno collected $3.2 million in outside income.
If the honest-services law is declared unconstitutional, Carr says, Bruno could have his case overturned.
Attorneys for the former Senate majority leader have indicated they are planning to appeal their client’s conviction, which will have to wait until after Bruno’s sentencing hearing on March 31, 2010.
“The legal process is going to continue, and in my mind and in my heart, it is not over until it’s over,” Bruno told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Albany following the Dec. 7 verdict.
“We now look forward to the Supreme Court,” Bruno’s spokesman Kris Thompson said later that evening in an e-mail message.
A day after Bruno’s case ended, the nation’s highest court heard oral arguments in two cases challenging the honest-services law. The cases involved Bruce Weyhrauch, an Alaska legislator who was found guilty of failing to disclose conflicts of interest, and Conrad Black, a Canadian media executive who was found guilty of stealing money from his company, Chicago-based Hollinger International — the owner of The Chicago Sun Times at the time — and using it for his personal use.
A third case is expected to be placed on an upcoming court docket.
Bruno, who spoke to reporters every day during his month-long trial, often pointed out the law he was charged under would be reviewed by the Supreme Court. “It’s apparent that I’m being tried under a very vague federal law,” he said on Nov. 9.
He also criticized the role federal prosecutors played in the trial. “If anybody wants to change the laws of New York state, that’s up to the Legislature,” Bruno said on Nov. 16. The former Senate majority leader consistently said he did nothing wrong and had a perfect right to conduct business on the side.
On Dec. 7, after seven days of deliberations, a jury found Bruno guilty on two counts and acquitted him on five other counts. The 12-member panel could not come to a unanimous verdict on an eighth count.
The guilty verdicts relate to Bruno’s financial relationship with Jared Abbruzzese, a businessman and close friend who paid him $360,000 between 2004 and 2005 to serve as a consultant to several of his companies.
Each count carries a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, according to Carr, it’s unlikely that Bruno will get the maximum sentence.
He said factors including a person’s age, prior criminal record and acceptance of responsibility play a role in determining lengths of sentences.
The only factor going against Bruno, according to Carr, is his failure to accept responsibility for his actions. Bruno entered a plea of not guilty, elected not to testify at trial and repeatedly said he did nothing wrong.
According to the Supreme Court’s Web site, there is no schedule for the releasing of its opinions.
All decisions, however, are released before its summer recess in late June.
According to Carr, Bruno’s defense team will likely ask for a stay of his sentence pending appeal.
The appeal process, which can last as long as two years, would buy enough time for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the law.
“This was round one,” Thompson said in his e-mail message last week. “We now await round two.”
Bruno’s sentencing hearing next March will take place at U.S. District Court in Albany, while the appeal would have to be filed in U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.