Ethics laws, charges questioned in Joe Bruno case

Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno was indicted in late January on corruption charges, but the laws the federal prosecutors are using against him are not for run-of-the-mill larceny. They are instead much murkier charges that not only highlight the unusual nature of how politicians can run afoul of the law, but how the state keeps an eye on them in the first place.

Bruno's arrest was the result of a three-year federal investigation. Prosecutors allege that he used his political connections to steer business in the direction of entities he then took money from, and that he also took fees for consulting work when, in fact, he provided none. He allegedly collected $3.2 million between 1993 and 2006 in this manner, and failed to report that income to the state Legislative Ethics Committee, as well.

So what crime do these allegations lead to? Mail fraud. Specifically, a scheme to artifice and defraud the state of New York and its citizens of the intangible right to honest services, a charge that prosecutors sometimes use to nail down perpetrators of white collar crime and whose legal value is hardly bulletproof.

"It's taking a statute and expanding it in a way that creates tremendous powers for prosecutors to go after legislators," said Eric Lane, a professor at Hofstra Law School in Long Island.

The phrase "to artifice and defraud" was an addendum in an 1872 mail fraud law and is the reason Bruno is being charged with that offense. It's often used in charging public servants, most notably former Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2003. Ryan sold government contracts and licenses in return for bribes, and will be incarcerated until 2013 for it.

To some lawyers, the law is written a bit too broadly for comfort; it gives prosecutors the right to make charges on a wide range of things that some might see corrupt, but others might not. Who's to define what's "honest," after all?

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