ALBANY Former state Senate majority leader Joe Bruno was paid $20,000 a month for using his influence to benefit businessman Jared Abbruzzese, a prosecutor charged Monday at the opening of Bruno’s federal retrial on corruption charges.
“This is about a no-show job and a worthless racehorse,” Assistant U.S. Atorney Elizabeth Coombe told jurors, asserting that Bruno used his influence to steer millions in state money to assist companies Abbruzzese had invested in.
Among the allegations is that Abbruzzese, a friend of the powerful Republican, paid Bruno $80,000 for his share of an unpromising racehorse.
Bruno went on trial in U.S. District Court Monday on two felony counts of “honest services” fraud, alleging he deprived the public of his honest services as an elected official by quietly accepting Abbruzzese’s money — some $440,000 over almost two years — as a bribe to make decisions that would benefit Abbruzzese’s business interests.
“He actually used his office for the benefit of the person who was paying him,” Coombe asserted in an opening statement laying out the government’s bribery case against Bruno.
“It was a quid pro quo bribery scheme, and that’s illegal,” Coombe said.
Bruno’s defense attorneys, however, contended that Abbruzzese was only a bit player in the organizations Bruno is accused of aiding on his behalf, and that staffs of then-Gov. George Pataki and others were also involved in those spending decisions.
Bruno was a respected telecommunications businessman outside of politics and earned his consulting fees legitimately, said defense attorney William Dreyer of Albany.
Under the consulting agreement, Bruno introduced Abbruzzese to influential people, Dreyer said. The brusque Abbruzzese also sought Bruno’s expertise to learn “diplomacy,” he said.
“The government has taken isolated facts, thrown them up in the air, and said this doesn’t look good,” Dreyer, of Albany, concluded in his opening statement.
The opening statements came Monday after a nine-woman, three-man jury was seated. Testimony before U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe will begin at 10 a.m. today.
Bruno, 85, of Brunswick, Rensselaer County, resigned from his Senate seat representing Rensselaer and Saratoga counties and also his leadership post in 2008 as an FBI investigation came to its close. He had served in the Senate since 1976 and led the Senate’s Republican majority since 1994.
He was indicted in 2009 on eight fraud charges. In a late-2009 trial, he was convicted of two counts of honest services fraud and acquitted on five other counts. The jury was hung on the remaining count.
The first conviction was overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court changed the definition of honest services fraud to require proof of bribes or kickbacks, which hadn’t been required at the time of the first trial. Prosecutors got a new indictment last year, contending the payments from Abbruzzese were bribes. That has led to the current trial.
In her opening statement, Coombe said Bruno was paid $20,000 per month from March 2004 to August 2005 for nonexistent “business consulting” and that Abbruzzese also paid $80,000 to buy Bruno’s share of a “worthless” thoroughbred racehorse they owned in a partnership.
“It was Sen. Bruno’s idea for Mr. Abbruzzese to start paying him,” Coombe said, saying there will be testimony about a conversation the men had aboard Abbruzzese’s private jet while returning from a Florida golfing trip in early 2004.
In return for receiving the money, Coombe said Bruno freed up a $250,000 state grant promised to Evident Technologies, a startup technology firm in which Abbruzzese had invested.
Bruno also helped arrange a $2.5 million grant to Russell Sage College in Troy to renovate a science building into labs for Evident, Coombe said. He also placed an Abbruzzese business associate, Wayne Barr, on the board of the New York Racing Association, she said.
“Sen. Bruno never produced any written work products in return for these payments,” Coombe told jurors in a 15-minute statement. “You will hear that there never was any work product.”
Dreyer, in a 45-minute opening statement, said Bruno consulted Senate lawyers about the consulting contract, and Abbruzzese himself will testify that he sought no government favors from Bruno.
“Nothing was hidden. It was all out in the open. The lawyers, the Senate staffers all knew,” Dreyer said.
Prosecutors say the payments were indeed hidden from public view.
Dreyer said that Abbruzzese only owned 8 percent of Evident Technologies and that the idea of creating space for the company at Russell Sage originated with the college, not with Bruno.
“It caves in on itself,” Dreyer said of the government’s case. “All you have to do is analyze the evidence put before you.”
Bruno, who held daily impromptu news conferences on the courthouse steps to proclaim his innocence during the 2009 trial but did not testify, was much more subdued outside the courtroom on Monday.
“I’m just tired,” he said in a barely audible voice as reporters followed him down Broadway during the court’s lunch break. “I’m looking forward to getting this long ordeal behind me.”
After court adjourned, defense co-counsel E. Stewart Jones hurried Bruno to a waiting Honda CRV as reporters sought to question him.
Bruno underwent surgery for kidney cancer last September, which delayed the start of his trial from last fall until now. He told reporters he was going home to rest.
Prosecution testimony will begin at 10 a.m. today. The trial is expected to last two to three weeks, Sharpe told jurors.