Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Closing the Bruno Gap

Yesterday, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was convicted of two felony charges of mail fraud under the federal honest services law. He is all but certain to appeal. If he wins on appeal, it will not be because Bruno did not accept millions of dollars in consulting fees from individuals with legislative interests without disclosing the payments (he admits that he did), but rather because the federal statute under which he was charged is currently under review.

Some have argued that the federal prosecution of Bruno underscores the failures of state ethics commissions to do their jobs. We're not sure that's fair. The sad fact is, it is not clear that there is any state statute under which to charge state politicians for the kinds of crimes Bruno was alleged (and now convicted) of committing. New York’s ethics laws, such as they are, don’t restrict outside earnings or require legislators to disclose the sources of their income. Those who collect outside income that might raise questions about conflicts of interest – including Shelly Silver, according to a witness at Bruno’s trial – can simply refuse to disclose that information. Even under the ethics bill nearly passed this fall, there would not necessarily be a case for convicting Bruno.

The question, then, shouldn’t be about the problem with Bruno’s actions – most would agree that it is undesirable for a legislative leader to accept over $3 million from individuals who wish to influence policy outcomes – but the problem with New York’s ethics laws. We need a new push for ethics reform that includes mandatory disclosure of all outside income (including from legal work, as is required in Washington state), pay to play restrictions (which would have explicitly banned Bruno’s activities), and a truly independent legislative ethics commission to oversee compliance with these laws.

We need these reforms soon, before the next Joe Bruno – and odds are good that there will be one – walks.

No comments: