A ruling issued today by the U.S. Supreme Court on the “theft of honest services” provision could have bearing on the conviction of former state Senate Majority Joseph L. Bruno, according to legal experts.
The Brunswick Republican was sentenced last month to two years in federal prison as a result of his two felony mail fraud convictions. He was allowed to remain free on bail until the Supreme Court ruled on a trio of cases dealing with the federal statute he was convicted under. At issue was the theft of honest services law, a broad anti-fraud provision that makes it a crime to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest service.” The law has been criticized for being far too vague, and opponents say it’s arbitrarily applied in many cases.
The Supreme Court looked at three cases involving the statute, one of which dealt with former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling’s conviction. In their ruling in that case, the justices determined that some of the charges he was convicted of may not have been covered by the theft of honest services law.
In the more than 100-page majority opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court found that the federal theft of honest services statute applies only to bribery and kickback schemes, neither of which Bruno was convicted of.
The court’s ruling doesn’t necessarily mean that Skilling’s conviction will be overturned. He was convicted in 2006 on 19 counts of conspiracy, securities fraud, insider trading and lying to auditors for his role in the downfall of Enron, which collapsed into bankruptcy in 2001. Skilling is serving a sentence of more than 24 years at a minimum security prison in Colorado. His case will now go back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where some of his charges could be dismissed or retried.
The court also sided with former newspaper mogul Conrad Black, and set aside a federal appeals court decision that had upheld his honest services fraud conviction. Like the Skilling case, the justices have left the resolution of that case to the appeals court. An appeals court ruling against former Alaska legislator Bruce Weyhrauch under the honest services law was thrown out.
Bruno, his attorneys and his supporters had hoped the nation’s highest court would overturn the theft of honest services provision entirely, but the partial-ruling is likely to help Bruno’s case.
“I have maintained faith and trust in the justice system since the very start and the Supreme Court’s decisions rendered earlier today reaffirm that belief,” said Bruno in a statement. “We are in the process of reviewing the decisions before taking the next step in the legal process as we remain hopeful for a positive resolution.”
Bruno was convicted of two counts of felony wire and mail fraud in December following a weekslong trial in federal court. The jury acquitted Bruno on five similar counts and reached no verdict on another. Bruno did not testify in his own defense.
The prosecution’s case was focused on whether or not Bruno used his leverage as one of the state’s most powerful figures to net himself high-paying consulting gigs that consisted of little to no work, oftentimes for employers with whom a substantial conflict of interested existed. A slew of former state Senate staffers and lawyers took the stand for the prosecution, some receiving offers of immunity from prosecution for their testimony. The trial shone a spotlight on the often-unseen backdoor dealings of state government.
The counts of which the jury convicted Bruno both dealt with Loudonville businessman Jared Abbruzzese, whose companies paid Bruno $200,000 the jury found to be improper. The other charge stemmed for an $80,000 payment for a race horse deemed near worthless. Abbruzzese, who testified at the trial, had business ties to the thoroughbred racing industry, which is heavily regulated by state government.
“We are seeking a conference with the court and the prosecution to discuss the impact the ruling will have on the case,” said Bruno’s attorney William Dreyer.
Dreyer said this afternoon that he wouldn’t comment yet on the ruling itself.
At his sentencing last month, Bruno was also given three years of post-release supervision. He was also ordered to pay $280,000 in restitution, an amount which was initially agreed upon by the prosecution and the defense and then approved by Sharpe.
Calls to the U.S. attorney’s office for prosecutor William Pericak were not immediately returned. Calls to Judge Gary Sharpe’s court clerk were also unreturned as of this afternoon.
“Even though they (the Supreme Court) didn’t strike it (the statute) down entirely, they did the next best thing for Joe Bruno,” said Thomas E. Carr, a partner at the Albany law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC. “It’s entirely conceivable that Sharpe will overturn the conviction without having to through the process of appeal.”
Carr said the court’s decision was more or less what he’d expected.