New York Senate Majority Leader Probed for Conflicts of Interest

Joseph Bruno has been trying to please a constituency that just can’t say “enough”:  New York’s labor unions. For the last dozen years he’s been New York State Senate Majority Leader. But with Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, having taken over a year ago from Republican George Pataki as governor, Bruno by default has become the most powerful GOP official in a state where unions can make or break political careers. Bruno knows this, which likely explains why his unusually close ties to organized labor for someone in his party. Yet it appears certain union members want more from him. And they’re willing to engage in behind-the-scenes skullduggery to get results. Ironically, though their tactics may raise objections, their complaints are not without basis. Sen. Bruno’s longtime business relationships really do raise conflict-of-interest issues.        


Joe Bruno, 78, a resident of Brunswick (Rensselaer County), N.Y. is gainfully employed beyond his Senate position. The state’s ethics law allows public officials to earn outside income, so long as the activity does not conflict with basic duties. Legislators in particular tend to double dip because they meet on a part-time basis and their pay is low. Since the mid Nineties, Bruno has been an employee of Winthrop Corporation, whose licensee is the Milford, Conn.-based Wright Investors’ Service. His annual ethics reports indicate as much. What they do not indicate is the nature of his work or the identity of his clients. Several unnamed union members recently took a step toward promoting transparency. They obtained Bruno’s ethics and tax records, and took them to the New York Times. It turns out that Wright Investors’ Service is heavy with union accounts.  


Wright’s client roster includes local and regional chapters of the Carpenters, Plumbers, and Service Employees unions, among other unions. The New York City-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, representing security guards and janitors, alone accounts for tens of millions of dollars under company control. The SEIU-affiliated United Healthcare Workers Local 1199, a Wright client, has been a powerful force in expanding Medicaid contributions and other health care subsidies. Coincidentally or not, Bruno is an outspoken union ally. He even opposed – for a while – Gov. Spitzer’s attempts to reform the state’s Wicks Law, which requires hiring multiple contractors on public-works projects. Unions love the law, and repeatedly have blocked attempts at curbing it even though it has inflated local government contracting costs. Belatedly, Sen. Bruno agreed to support the reform effort, but so far it has stalled. Bruno and Spitzer currently are barely on speaking terms, especially in the wake of revelations this past summer that members of the governor’s staff had asked State Police to provide details of the senator’s flights and car rides. Even the New York’s Democratic attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, criticized Spitzer for this.  

Eugene Helm, president of Wright Investors, insists that his firm’s relationship with union benefit plans predated Bruno’s employment. He described the senator’s role as “business development,” though neither he nor Bruno’s office provided specifics. Helm declined to say whether his company had been subpoenaed or approached by federal investigators. “We have never run afoul of the law or had a suit against us,” he said. “Did we employ and do we employ Joe Bruno? Yes. But that by itself doesn’t make us guilty of anything.” It is a fact, however, that one of Wright’s clients, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Local 370, based in Albany, N.Y., has been the subject of an ongoing U.S. Department of Labor probe. And while the evidence does not appear to implicate Bruno, it does suggest that there is an uncomfortably tight network of political, business and labor leaders running the state. (New York Times, 12/1/07; other sources).