Former state Senate majority leader Joseph L. Bruno, who was indicted on corruption charges Friday, was a legendary figure who brought hundreds of millions of state dollars to the region during his 12 years in state leadership.
Friends defended him Friday, and political observers said the charges will complicate his legacy.
“Residents of the Capital Region can’t help but look around and see Joe Bruno’s fingerprints everywhere,” said Robert Turner, an associate professor of government at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. “He’s clearly done many good things for the district.”
Bruno, who resigned from his Senate seat last July, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Albany on Friday. Bruno said he is innocent.
Bruno, 79, of Brunswick, represented the 43rd Senate District in Rensselaer and Saratoga counties for 32 years, until his resignation. He was the Senate majority leader — one of the most powerful men in state government — from 1995 until last spring.
The indictment alleges that Bruno received improper payments totaling $3.2 million from individuals and companies that did business with the state and that he didn’t disclose the relationships on ethics forms. The indictment doesn’t mention any of the high-profile public works projects he pushed through.
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John “Jasper” Nolan, the Saratoga County Republican chairman, staunchly defended Bruno after the charges became public.
“An indictment does not mean guilt,” he said. “You have the right to defend yourself.
“A prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich,” Nolan continued. “Whatever dealings I’ve had with him, he has always been a man of integrity. I firmly believe he will be found innocent.”
Bruno grew up in Glens Falls and has been involved in Capital Region politics for more than 50 years.
Rumors about financial dealings and tight relationships with wealthy friends have dogged Bruno for years. The FBI probe that produced Friday’s indictment is at least three years old.
“Many people have long suspected this, but they were willing to overlook it because of his effectiveness as a legislator,” Turner said.
Bruno was instrumental in getting state funding for the modernization of Albany International Airport and the Rensselaer Amtrak station and development of the nanotechnology center at the University at Albany. The baseball stadium at Hudson Valley Community College — Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, “The Joe” — is named for him.
More recently, Bruno steered more than $100 million in state money into development of the Luther Forest Technology Campus in Saratoga County and the county water line that will serve high-tech industries that locate there.
There was an over-arching theme in his efforts of trying to create new economic activity to replace the leaching away of other manufacturing jobs across the state.
State Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, who was elected to the 43rd District seat last November to replace Bruno, didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
But in a December interview, McDonald was effusive in his praise of his predecessor. He has retained several key people from Bruno’s staff.
“He was an icon. He did so much for the Capital Region, it’s like following Joe DiMaggio,” McDonald said at the time.
The indictment accuses Bruno of taking payments without disclosing their potential influence on his legislative decisions. On Friday afternoon, he entered a not guilty plea in federal court in Albany. Outside court, he vigorously criticized the charges.
“I think a lot will depend on what the final outcome is,” Turner said. “If it comes out that he was lining his own pocket, public opinion could turn against him.”
Turner noted politicians in New York have been mixing public business and personal gain for 200 years.
Other legislative leaders who have faced corruption indictments within the last 30 years include Stanley Steingut when he was Assembly speaker and Manfred Ohrenstein when he was Senate minority leader.