Sentence marks fall of region’s ‘Uncle Joe’

Almost five months to the day from when he was found guilty of defrauding the public, and just block

Almost five months to the day from when he was found guilty of defrauding the public, and just blocks from the state Capitol where he once wielded power, Joe Bruno was sentenced to two years of federal prison time late Thursday afternoon.

The sentence was handed down shortly before 6 p.m. after a three-hour proceeding that included Bruno speaking in court for the first time. He didn’t testify during his trial.

Though Bruno will remain free for now, the sentencing marked a spectacular fall for the former state Senate majority leader, who only two years ago was the most powerful and high-profile politician in the Capital Region — and had been for nearly 15 years.

Bruno remains a sort of folk hero to many people — the “Uncle Joe” for whom the professional baseball stadium in Troy was named after he got it $12 million in funding, the financial godfather of the Luther Forest Technology Campus and Saratoga County Water Authority, and backer of improvements to the Albany airport and Rensselaer train station and many other economic development projects around the region.

But throughout that time, some people who dealt with him called him a bully. He got family members onto the state payroll, and then, finally, federal prosecutors charged that he exploited the power that surrounded his Senate position to improperly obtain $3.2 million in business consulting fees.

Last December, the 81-year-old legend from rural Rensselaer County was acquitted of most of the charges in an eight-count indictment, but he was found guilty of two charges involving $280,000 in payments from businessman Jared Abbruzzese. That led to Thursday’s sentencing.

People who wrote letters to U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe offered both portraits of Bruno, though Sharpe said he gave relatively little weight to the more than 70 pieces of correspondence.

“There are so many abuses of power that Joe Bruno engaged in that he was not charged with or convicted of,” wrote the Rev. Robert M. Hoatson of West Orange, N.J.

“In my experience and in my opinion, no one in the long history of this community has done more for those of us who live here or visit here than Joe Bruno,” wrote E. Stewart Jones, the prominent Troy attorney and Bruno’s friend, who was briefly in the courtroom Thursday.

Bruno grew up poor in Glens Falls, the third of eight children in an Italian immigrant family. “I had the most miserable childhood you can imagine,” he said in court Thursday.

After he started working at age 9, Bruno served with the U.S. Army in Korea in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, got a degree in business administration from Skidmore College under a program for veterans and went on to develop a telephone communications technology company, Coradian Corp., that made him a millionaire before he entered politics in 1976.

Bruno was elected to the Senate seat representing Rensselaer County in 1976, built a power base among conservative upstate Republican legislators, and over Thanksgiving weekend in 1994 led a successful Republican conference coup against then-majority leader Ralph Marino, who had opposed the party nomination of George Pataki, who had just been elected governor.

“It had never happened before,” Bruno said proudly of the coup.

Coradian Corp. was sold in 1993, and it was right around that time that prosecutors said Bruno began soliciting payments of $10,000 or $20,000 a month for business consulting. Eventually, they said, he obtained $3.2 million through business relationships he should have disclosed, but didn’t.

“In my heart and in my mind, I did nothing wrong,” Bruno said. “Maybe I used bad judgment, maybe I was cavalier in the way I handled some of my business.”

That was during the nearly hour-long speech of justification to the court in which the politician was still evident. At times, he sparred with U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe in ways that drew laughter from the gallery.

At times, he seemed like he was orating on the Senate floor.

His speech after the sentencing, before a throng of reporters on the courthouse’s Broadway steps, was much less grandiose, and delivered in a barely audible voice. He was then followed down Broadway by more than two dozen reporters and cameramen.

“I think what we have done will speak for itself,” he said when asked about his legacy.

When Bruno crossed over to State Street, he was met by a vocal detractor stopped at a traffic light who shouted a brief admonishment at the senator. Bruno stopped, ducked his head into the car’s passenger window and shook the man’s hand before continuing on and disappearing into Jack’s Oyster House, less than a block from the courthouse and long known as a hangout for Albany’s powerful. He ate lunch there every day during the trial.

Supporters who turned out on Bruno’s behalf were also part of the scene outside the courthouse. Brian Houle of Troy stood outside the building throughout the proceeding, holding a sign that read “I believe in you Joe.”

Houle, who also stood outside during the trial, estimated he spent about 28 hours advocating for Bruno. He said it was the least he could do, considering what the senator did for the Capital Region.

“He did a lot of good for us,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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