Three U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued Thursday raise the possibility that the corruption conviction of former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno could be thrown out because of restrictions placed on prosecutors using the federal "honest services" law.
Lawyers for the once-powerful Republican legislative leader began working on trying to undo the conviction, which was based on charges that Bruno deprived the public of his honest services as he got rich with outside business dealings.
The Supreme Court said the law can be used if accompanied by one of two other charges: bribery or kickback.
The honest-services case against Bruno was centered on his failure to disclose his outside business dealings but was not specifically about a bribery or kickback scheme, even though Bruno's private dealings were with individuals and companies with business before a state government over which he wielded considerable influence.
Bruno, 81, was sentenced in May to two years in prison, though the judge has allowed him to remain free while awaiting the high court rulings.
The three Supreme Court cases -- involving a former Enron executive, a media mogul and an Alaskan politician -- could have an impact on current corruption cases against former Niagara Falls Mayor Vince Anello and others.
Anello has been charged with honest-services fraud involving money he received from local businessman Joseph "Smokin' Joe" Anderson, but he also faces charges not affected by the high court ruling: two counts of extortion under "color of official right" in connection with the Anderson money and embezzling $94,000 from an electrical workers pension fund.
Anello's attorney, Joel L. Daniels, did not return a call seeking comment.
Bruno said Thursday, "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."
U.S. Attorney Richard S. Hartunian in Albany said the court's ruling did not find the honest-services law unconstitutional, as long as bribery or kickback schemes are involved.
"The effect of the Supreme Court's ruling on Joseph L. Bruno's conviction is being carefully considered and will be addressed in future court filings," he said.
Bruno has reason to be optimistic, some lawyers said.
In limiting a popular tool used by prosecutors to go after wrongdoing by politicians and corporate executives, the high court said the law has been too broadly interpreted. It said honest-services decisions over the years have not been "models of clarity or consistency."
While there have been debates over how far the honest-services law could be used to convict corporate executives and politicians, the court said Congress, by enacting the law, intended it to "at least reach bribery or kickback schemes."
"Construing the honest-services statute to extend beyond that core meaning, we conclude, would encounter a vagueness shoal," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in writing for the majority in one of the cases.
Bruno's case did not involve bribery or kickbacks, the federal judge who presided at the trial said during the proceedings. Bruno did get rich, prosecutors said, using his position to gain lucrative outside consulting deals and then trying to hide those arrangements on his financial disclosure forms with a legislative ethics committee.
Bruno allies Thursday predicted a swift resolution of his case. "Joe did some things I thought he shouldn't have done, but he's not a criminal," said Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, who has worked for years on the side in a private law firm. He said lawmakers have a right to outside jobs because state legislator is considered a part-time position.
Bruno took over the Senate Republican conference during a 1994 coup and remained as one of Albany's power brokers until he left office in mid-2008.
His 43rd Senatorial District and the surrounding Albany area benefited the most, receiving billions of dollars in state funding for airport expansions, a new train station, baseball park and a project to build a massive computer chip-manufacturing plant providing thousands of jobs.
In his years as majority leader, Bruno negotiated more than $1 trillion worth of state budget deals. During that time, he also got rich on outside deals with companies and individuals with a stake in legislation or other business before the state.
In December, a jury convicted Bruno of two counts of mail and wire fraud based on the federal statute that he had deprived the public of his honest services while in office.
Besides receiving a two-year prison term, Bruno also was ordered to pay $280,000 in restitution for payments he received on his consulting deals with an Albany businessman, as well as $80,000 he got for a thoroughbred horse that prosecutors deemed worthless.
In May, Judge Gary L. Sharpe told Bruno he was keeping him out of prison until the Supreme Court ruling and told lawyers to be ready to appear before him after the ruling.