One of Joe Bruno’s longtime assistants testified Tuesday about a complex financial relationship with businessman Jared Abbruzzese, as federal prosecutors began laying out their case against the former state Senate majority leader.
Patricia Stackrow, who worked for Bruno in his Senate office for 24 years, told a jury about Bruno’s consulting work for Abbruzzese and a complex partnership in which the men shared ownership of race horse brood mares. Though she worked for the Senate, she handled Bruno’s private financial matters.
“I do not know” Stackrow said repeatedly as Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak questioned her about what Bruno did in return for the $20,000 a month four different Abbruzzese companies paid him as a consultant in 2004 and 2005.
Bruno, 85, is on trial in U.S. District Court on two counts of honest services fraud — allegations that $440,000 in payments from Abbruzzese were actually bribes to buy the powerful Republican’s influence.
Prosecutors said Monday they will show state grant money controlled by Bruno was steered to Abbruzzese-backed companies, but there was no testimony about that Tuesday.
Abbruzzese business partner Wayne Barr, who in 2004 actually signed the consulting agreements promising the $20,000 a month to Bruno, told jurors that shortly after the deals were signed, Bruno said he would nominate him to the board of the New York Racing Association, which controls thoroughbred racing in the state. The appointment was then made in June 2004 by then-Gov. George Pataki.
Barr said he couldn’t say why the payments were set at $20,000 per month.
“That figure would have been given to me by Mr. Abbruzzese when he asked me to prepare the engagement letter,” Barr said.
Barr, an attorney, testified under a court order granting him immunity from prosecution for anything he said in his testimony.
The consulting agreement was made directly with Bruno, and Barr said he didn’t know why the checks were actually made out to Capital Business Consultants, a company Bruno set up. Bruno was the company’s primary employee, but Stackrow testified Bruno’s daughter Katie was also on the payroll for two years, though she only worked “a couple of months.”
Stackrow, who worked for Bruno from 1984 to 2008 and was his “gatekeeper,” said she also maintained the senator’s financial records, including taking responsibility for preparing annual state ethics commission financial disclosure forms.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney William Dreyer of Albany, she said she consulted Senate lawyers on Bruno’s outside activities, and Bruno didn’t get involved or ever ask her not to disclose something.
“He wouldn’t have time to get involved in that kind of thing,” Stackrow said. “That’s what he had staff for.”
Stackrow was not paid anything beyond her state salary for her work on Bruno’s behalf, which occurred in his office on evenings when Bruno was still working.
She said she first heard of Abbruzzese, a wealthy Loudonville businessman, in 2002, when Thomas Spargo, then a Senate attorney, sought to introduce him to Bruno because Abbruzzese wanted a box at Saratoga Race Course. Bruno’s initial reaction, Stackrow said, was “he did not want to meet Tom’s friends.”
The men did meet, though, and by early 2004 were friendly enough to take a golf trip to Florida together on a private jet chartered by Abbruzzese.
It was on that flight that prosecutors said Bruno approached Abbruzzese about the senator working for him as a telecommunications consultant. Bruno’s initial business success was with Coradian Corp., a telecommunications company.
Over the next 18 months, Bruno would be paid $360,000 at a rate of $20,000 per month, with the money coming at different times from four different telecommunications companies owned by Abbruzzese.
In addition, Abbruzzese joined a race horse partnership with Bruno and Dr. Jerry Bilinski, a veterinarian, in 2004. Bruno and later Bilinski actually cared for the two brood mares and their foals, while Abbruzzese’s role was purely financial, according to Stackrow.
Abbruzzese ended his partnership in late 2005 because he was interested in joining Empire Racing, a private group considering bidding for the soon-to-expire state horse racing franchise. NYRA at the time was virtually bankrupt, and state officials were openly considering other bidders.
During the dissolution of the partnership, Abbruzzese paid Bruno $40,000 for a year-old filly insured for $10,000, plus Abbruzzese forgave a $40,000 payment Bruno otherwise owed him for the sale of the partnership’s horses. Prosecutors contend the $80,000 in compensation for the filly was another form of bribery.
Bruno, of Brunswick, was the Senate’s Republican majority leader from 1994 to 2008, when he resigned amid an FBI investigation.
The current case is a retrial, after Bruno’s two convictions for honest services fraud in 2009 were overturned on appeal.
Testimony before U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe will resume at 10 a.m. today.