Joe Bruno will go on trial a second time today on corruption charges, but no matter the verdict, Round Lake Mayor Dixie Lee Sacks and a lot of other people in the region will always think highly of him.
“He really did a lot of good for a lot of places,” she said last week, recalling how the state senator helped the tiny Saratoga County village more than a decade ago.
The community needed Bruno’s help securing the financing to replace its ancient water and sewer lines, a project begun in 2001 after years of behind-the-scenes work to line up $3.3 million in state and federal grants and low-interest loans.
“Most people ignore us. We only have 400 votes. He helped us out,” Sacks recalled.
At the time, Bruno, R-Brunswick, was the entrenched majority leader of the New York state Senate, a position he used to fund many Capital Region economic development projects and aid communities in his district, which included Rensselaer County and a large part of Saratoga County.
As one of the three most powerful men in state government from 1994 to 2008, he was a primary architect of the 2006 plan that gave $1.2 billion in state incentives to attract what is now the GlobalFoundries Fab 8 computer chip complex to Malta.
The construction of modern new facilities at the Albany International Airport and Rensselaer Amtrak station also owe much to Bruno, as does the massive expansion at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.
And of course there’s “The Joe” — Joseph L. Bruno Stadium next to HVCC, which was paid for with $12.2 million in state money and where rookie professional baseball has been played, if not always well, since 2002.
But in the process of wielding his influence, Bruno is accused of inappropriately and illegally enriching himself, in one of a series of high-profile corruption cases that has come out of the state Legislature in recent years.
At stake along with potential prison time is Bruno’s legacy: whether he will be remembered as an admirable if pugnacious up-from-poverty dispenser of state largesse, or another poster boy for public corruption in the state Legislature.
The 85-year-old Bruno’s second trial is scheduled to begin with jury selection at 9:30 this morning in U.S. District Court in Albany.
It comes some 4 1/2 years after his first highly publicized trial ended with two convictions that were later overturned.
He faces two counts of honest services fraud — of depriving the public of his “honest services” by using his public position to his own financial advantage.
Prosecutors said his legislative successes are irrelevant to the charges, and shouldn’t come into the trial. “Evidence and testimony regarding defendant’s legislative achievements, including technology projects listed on his exhibit list, are not relevant to whether the defendant committed honest services fraud,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth C. Coombe wrote in a legal brief filed Friday.
Bruno resigned from his leadership post and then the Senate seat he’d held for 32 years in 2008, as a three-year FBI investigation into his financial activities neared its end.
Bruno was indicted by a federal grand jury in early 2009 on eight counts of using his position to obtain $3.2 million over a 14-year period, for doing publicly undisclosed work as a pension fund advisor and a business consultant.
His first trial in late fall 2009 ended with a jury acquitting him of five charges, including that he illegally lobbied public employee unions on behalf of a pension fund.
He was convicted, however, on two counts. He was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe to two years in prison, but served no time while the conviction was being appealed.
The convictions were vacated on appeal, because in the interim the U.S. Supreme Court stiffened the standard for “honest services” fraud convictions to require proof that the payments were bribes or kickbacks.
Prosecutors last year got a new indictment, which alleged that $440,000 in payments from businessman Jared Abbruzzese — the allegations of which he was convicted at the first trial — were bribes for Bruno’s help in winning state grants for companies Abbruzzese had invested in or owned, putting an Abbruzzese business partner on the New York Racing Association board, and other favors.
The government says it doesn’t have to prove a direct connection between the $20,000 per month payments for “business consulting” to Abbruzzese companies and the benefits Abbruzzese is alleged to have received.
“The quid pro quo element is satisfied if the public official understood that as a result of the payment, he was expected to exercise particular kinds of influence on behalf of the payor as opportunities arose,” Coombe wrote in a recent pretrial brief.
The defense sees things differently, and says the case against Bruno is entirely circumstantial. “The government cannot prove the existence of an agreement or understanding that Mr. Bruno intended to be bribed by Mr. Abbruzzese,” Bruno’s attorneys wrote in a recent pretrial brief.
Bruno has consistently maintained he did nothing wrong, and that the payments were for legitimate business consulting. He did not testify at the first trial.
At his earlier trial, Bruno was represented by Abbe D. Lowell, a Washington, D.C., lawyer with a national reputation for defending high-profile public officials facing criminal charges, and by William J. Dreyer, a respected Albany criminal defense attorney.
In the new trial, he will be represented by Dreyer and E. Stewart Jones of Troy, who is among the Capital Region’s most-esteemed attorneys and who has been a staunch defender of Bruno’s since accusations against him first surfaced.
Assistant U.S. attorneys William C. Pericak and Coombe, who also prosecuted at the first Bruno trial, are expected to lead the prosecution. Judge Sharpe will again oversee the trial.