Former superintendent can’t withdraw guilty plea

JOHNSTOWN – A former area school superintendent has lost his bid to withdraw a guilty plea he entered in 2011 for misappropriating federal funds that were to be used to extend Internet services to the Glendale Yearound Community in Cambria County.

Dennis Bruno, 61, who served as a teacher in Altoona for two decades before becoming curriculum director, assistant superintendent and superintendent at Glendale School District in Flinton, entered a plea to one count of misappropriating $49,600.

Bruno then worked with investigators to help determine if others should have been charged with similar offenses, but in the end the FBI decided against filing further charges in the case.

The former school superintendent, represented by attorney William DeStefano of Philadelphia, then asked that he be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea, citing his innocence to any wrongdoing, pointing out no others were charged as a result of the investigation, and mainaining that when pleading guilty he was not informed that he would lose his eligibility to receive an $80,000-plus pension through the Pennsylvania Public School Employment Retirement Board.

After he left Glendale, Bruno became a principal at a school in Utah, and according to a recent interview with DeStefano, he now serves as a tutor.

U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson will sentence Bruno on Aug. 5.

Gibson rejected the request by Bruno to withdraw his guilty plea, stating repeatedly that the former school official failed to show that the federal funds were properly applied for the use they were intended, rather than used for other purposes.

Instead, Bruno argued in his request to withdraw the plea that he may have lacked “due diligence” in determining if the Yearound project was completed, and said others told him the project was completed.

His point was that he did not “intentionally” misapply funds.

The judge considered these arguments as a contention by the defense that Bruno was proclaiming his innocence, which is legally a reason for allowing a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea.

The judge heard testimony in March, and he concluded in a 29-page opinion that, “Simply stated, Defendant’s evidence does not show that the money disbursed to the District for the expansion of the (Internet) network was actually used for the stated purpose of the grant application.”

Gibson cited the transcript of Bruno’s guilty plea during which Bruno told the judge: “I have no questions, your honor. I understand the charge completely.”

The judge stated during the guilty plea colloquy, “Dr. Bruno, did you, as charged in the information … commit the crime of federal program theft?”

“Yes. I deeply regret that, too.”

“Did you commit it?”

“I did,” Bruno replied.

In addressing Bruno’s claim that others were not arrested, Gibson pointed out that during a three-year period in which Bruno was cooperating with the government in its ongoing investigation, he never contended he was innocent.

Gibson emphasized that investigation involved sources of money and different federal agencies that the funds he was accused of misapplying.

The judge also concluded that a loss of pension as a result of the plea was not considered a “collateral consequence” that was required to be explained to a defendant prior to a guilty plea.

“While the court is sympathetic to (Bruno’s) loss, the consequence of pension forfeiture is not a sufficient reason to permit defendant to withdraw his guilty plea,” he wrote.

Bruno could receive up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine as a result of his conviction.

Attempts to reach Bruno’s Philadelphia attorney on Tuesday were not successful.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.