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United States v. Bruno

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

June 25, 2014

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
DENNIS L. BRUNO, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KIM R. GIBSON JUDGE

I. Synopsis

Pending before the Court is Defendant Dennis L. Bruno's motion to withdraw his guilty plea (ECF No. 66). On May 9, 2011, Defendant waived his right to an Indictment and entered a plea of guilty to Count 1 of the Information, which charged Defendant with misappropriating funds from a federal grant. Defendant now asserts that he pled guilty "based on legally and factually erroneous information as to the offense at issue and without knowledge that he would lose his state pension as a result of his guilty plea." (ECF No. 66 at 1). Defendant argues that these are fair and just reasons to permit him to withdraw his guilty plea. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny Defendant's motion.

II. Standard of Review

"[A] guilty plea is a grave and solemn act to be accepted only with care and discernment." Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 748 (1970). The Supreme Court has explained,

A plea of guilty differs in purpose and effect from a mere admission or an extrajudicial confession; it is itself a conviction. Like a verdict of a jury it is conclusive. More is not required; the court has nothing to do but give judgment and sentence. Out of just consideration for persons accused of crime, courts are careful that a plea of guilty shall not be accepted unless made voluntarily after proper advice and with full understanding of the consequences.

Machibroda v. United States, 368 U.S. 487, 493 (1962) (quoting Kercheval v. United States, 274 U.S. 220, 223 (1927)).

"Once a court accepts a defendant's guilty plea, the defendant is not entitled to withdraw that plea simply at his whim." United States v. Jones, 336 F.3d 245, 252 (3d Cir. 2003). Instead, a defendant seeking to withdraw his guilty plea bears a "substantial" burden to demonstrate a fair and just reason. Id. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides,

A defendant may withdraw a plea of guilty . . . after the court accepts the plea, but before it imposes sentence if . . . the defendant can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.

Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B). However, "[a] shift in defense tactics, a change of mind, or the fear of punishment are not adequate reasons to impose on the government the expense, difficulty, and risk of trying a defendant who has already acknowledged his guilt by pleading guilty." United States v. Brown, 250 F.3d 811, 815 (3d Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). When deciding a motion to withdraw a guilty plea, a court should evaluate three factors: (1) whether the defendant asserts his innocence; (2) the strength of the defendant's reasons for withdrawing the plea; and (3) whether the government would be prejudiced by the withdrawal. Id.; United States v. Huff, 873 F.2d 709, 711 (3d Cir. 1989).

III. Background

Before evaluating the factors set forth above, the Court will briefly review the history of this case. This matter arises from a single-count Information charging Defendant with federal program theft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1). (See ECF No. 1). According to the Information, while Defendant was the superintendent of the Glendale School District ("District"), he misappropriated approximately $49, 600 of proceeds from a federal grant—the Fund for the Improvement of Education, which is a program funded by the United States Department of Education. (Id.).

On February 15, 2005, Defendant completed a grant application to fund part of the District's Broadband Rural Area Information Network (B.RA.I.N.) project. (Grant Application, Gov't Ex. 1). According to Defendant's grant application, the purpose of the B.R.A.I.N. project was to

[A]ddress the challenges of improving student academic performance and overcoming the "digital divide" by providing the opportunity to extend the school year and school day to students' homes by becoming a community learning and information hub by providing community access to the Internet wireless broadband connectivity.

(Id.). To accomplish this goal, the Glendale Area Information Network (GAIN) was created to provide "an Internet backbone between the school district and the community that delivers high speed Internet connections ... at very affordable rates." (Id.). However, certain communities — specifically, the Glendale Yearound community—were so rural that implementing an affordable high-speed Internet infrastructure was difficult and costly. Hence, Defendant applied for a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Education to fund the expansion of the high-speed Internet network to the Glendale Yearound community. (Id.).

According to the grant application, the proposed project would expand an existing Internet network from a tower located in Flinton, Pennsylvania, by installing repeater facilities in three locations and residential receivers for forty subscribers. (Id.). Sting Communications—which at that time provided Internet service to the District and some surrounding communities—would install and operate the network expansion. (Id.). The grant application provided a timeline for the disbursement of the funds and completion of the project. (Id.). It also identified the following evaluation criteria for the completed project:

Evaluation will be based on the successful deployment of the equipment to light the towers in Glendale Yearound. When the towers have been activated and community members have been put on line then the project will have reached its conclusion.

(Id.). Finally, the grant application identified Defendant's responsibilities to include "making sure the Sting Communications installs all necessary equipment . . . [and] disburs[ing] the funds as the project is completed." (Id.).

After the grant was approved, the United States Department of Education made three disbursements of funds to the Glendale School District: (1) the first disbursement of $20, 000 was made to the District on October 3, 2005; (2) a second disbursement of $18, 784 was made on October 12, 2005; and (3) the final disbursement of $10, 816 was made on July 18, 2006. Work on the project was supposed to take place during this same period of time—approximately a ten-month period from October 2005 through July 2006.

On August 24, 2006, Defendant completed a grant performance report. (Gov't Ex. 2). The report noted that $49, 600 had been disbursed for the project. (Id. at 1). Defendant stated in the report

The project has been very successful. The community now has internet access as well as the school. A number of areas are now being served with Internet. Blandburg, Coalport, and Yearround to name a couple. The infrastructure that was completed provides access at the year-round for [ ] families.

(Id. at 2). The report also listed the various equipment that was installed and identified the cost of each. (Id. at 2).

Sometime after Defendant submitted the performance report, the FBI, the Department of Education, and the Pennsylvania Auditor General initiated a series of investigations.[1] Investigators first made contact with Defendant on May 25, 2010.[2] At that time, George Blissman, an agent with the United States Department of Education, Office of Inspector General, presented Defendant with a "target letter, " advising Defendant that he was the target of an investigation. (ECF No. 94 at 55, 125). Agent Blissman testified that during this first meeting with Defendant, "Dr. Bruno admitted to me that . . . the service at the Glendale Yearound was never completed." (ECF No. 94 at 71). Defendant then cooperated with the Government for nearly a year regarding the various ongoing investigations. Throughout this time, Defendant never "questioned] the Department of Ed. grant misapplication charge he was facing." (ECF No. 94 at 92).

Then, on May 9, 2011, Defendant made his initial appearance before this Court, waived his right to an Indictment, and entered a plea of guilty to Count 1 of the Information. (See ECF Nos. 6, 7, 8). Defendant was represented at this proceeding by retained counsel, Arthur T. McQuillan, an experienced criminal defense attorney. At the hearing, the Court conducted an exhaustive plea colloquy with Defendant. (ECF No. 38, Plea Hr'g Tr.).

At the time that Defendant entered his guilty plea, he was 59 years old. (Id. at 4). Defendant is a highly educated and accomplished individual. Defendant testified that he completed his doctorate in 2003, explaining,

I went to Perm State University for my undergraduate. Penn State University for my graduate. Penn State University for a portion of my doctorate, and then I switched to [Nova Southeastern University] in Florida to complete my doctorate in instructional and technology education.

(Id. at 4). Regarding his employment history, Defendant testified that he most recently worked for two years as the principal of a charter school in Utah, and was employed for ten years by the Glendale School District in Flinton, Pennsylvania, first as the director of curriculum, then the assistant superintendent, and finally as the District's superintendent. (Id. at 6-7). Prior to his employment with the Glendale School District, Defendant was a teacher in the Altoona School District for nearly 20 years.

During the waiver of indictment portion of the May 9, 2011, proceeding, the Court read the charge in the Information to the Defendant:

From on or about October 3, 2005, to on or about July 18, 2006, in the Western District of Pennsylvania, the defendant, Dennis L. Bruno, being an agent of an organization, to wit; superintendent of Glendale School District, with said organization receiving in the one-year period beginning on or about October 3, 2005, benefits in excess of $10, 000 under the Fund for the Improvement of Education program, a program funded by the United States Department of Education, intentionally misapplied property worth at least $5, 000 that was under the care, custody, and control of Glendale School District. That is, the sum of approximately $49, 600 in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 666(a)(1)(A).

(Id. at 10). After the Court read the Information, Defendant acknowledged that he had reviewed the Information with his attorney and confirmed that he completely understood the charge and did not have any questions:

[THE COURT:] Do you understand that charge?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Your Honor.
THE COURT: And is that the charge that you had previously reviewed with your attorney?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Do you understand that charge and do not have any questions at this time?
THE DEFENDANT: I have no questions, Your Honor. I understand the charge completely.

(Id. at 9-11). Attorney McQuillan informed the Court that he had frequently consulted with Defendant for over a year prior to the plea hearing regarding the charge in the Information. (Id. at 14).

During the entry of plea portion of the proceeding, the Court again read the Information to the Defendant. (Id. at 13-15). Defendant again acknowledged that he understood the charge:

[THE COURT:] Do you understand that charge?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, I do, Your Honor.
THE COURT: And is that the charge that you discussed with ...

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