Another of the partners in a three-person thoroughbred breeding partnership gave away his interest in a yearling filly that Jared Abbruzzese then paid former state Senate leader Joe Bruno $80,000 for, according to testimony Wednesday at Bruno’s federal corruption trial.
“I do [breeding] for economic gain, so I elected to give it away,” veterinarian Dr. Jerry Bilinski testified in U.S. District Court.
The young horse, born in 2004, appeared to have little promise as a race horse, Bilinski acknowledged. He said his reaction to Abbruzzese’s purchase price — which he only learned of much later from federal prosecutors — was “surprise.”
However, Bilinski refused to call the yearling named Christy’s Night Out “worthless,” as federal prosecutors have repeatedly done in trying to make their case that Abbruzzese’s purchase was a form of bribe to Bruno.
“They’re animals. They deserve respect. No animal is worthless,” testified Bilinski, who said he considers himself a personal friend of Bruno’s.
The two men owned brood mares together from 2004 to 2006, including the mare that produced Christy’s Night Out. Abbruzzese joined the partnership after Bilinski and Bruno had formed it, and it was dissolved after Abbruzzese decided to join a consortium seeking to compete against the New York Racing Association for the state racing franchise.
Bruno, 85, of Brunswick, who was the Senate’s Republican majority leader from 1994 to 2008, is being retried on two felony counts of honest services fraud. He is accused of accepting $440,000 from Abbruzzese in 2004 and 2005 — including the horse payment — as a form of bribe that would buy Abbruzzese Bruno’s influence in state government.
Bruno denies the charges.
Bilinski, a former chairman of the state Racing and Wagering Board, said he has known Bruno for 40 years and he and Bruno share an interest in horses. Bilinski estimated he had bred and raised hundreds of the animals. He was considered to be Bruno’s chief adviser on horse industry issues.
He and Bruno agreed to buy two breed mares together in 2004, keeping them first at Bruno’s farm in Brunswick and later at Bilinski’s farm in North Chatham.
A colt born to one of the mares that summer sold at auction in 2005 for $150,000, while Abbruzzese after buying Christy’s Night Out from Bruno eventually gave her away.
Under questioning by defense attorney E. Stewart Jones, Bilinski said he understood that Abbruzzese’s wife had taken a liking to Christy’s Night Out, which was small for a racehorse.
In birth photographs, she had “a protruding tongue and her feet were a little broken up,” Bilinski said. “It caused me some concern.”
But he told Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe that his evaluation was based on photographs, and he didn’t think the horse had health problems.
Asked by Jones whether breeding race horses was a financially risky business, Bilinski said “very much so.”
Also testifying Wednesday was Wayne Barr Jr., a lawyer and business partner of Abbruzzese whom Bruno had appointed to the NYRA board in 2004.
Barr approved the agreements under which Bruno was paid $20,000 a month for telecommunications consulting to Abbruzzese in 2004 and 2005 — payments totaling $360,000 that prosecutors contend were simply bribes.
Barr said he was unaware of what work Bruno did for that money, but under cross-examination he emphatically denied ever having conversations in which the payments were linked to any official action by Bruno.
“We did not link the consulting agreement with Senator Bruno to the racing franchise, my appointment to the NYRA board or any racing matter,” Barr stated under questioning by Jones.
He said the consulting agreement was drafted by Francis Gluchowski, an attorney on the state Senate staff, and he took “a good deal of comfort in the fact this was provided to me by the senator’s lawyer.”
Coombe, in her questioning of Barr, pointed out that Abbruzzese during the time he was paying Bruno had an interest in replacing the near-bankrupt NYRA with a private operator when the state racing franchise to operate the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct tracks expired in 2007.
Prosecutors also contend that a $1.5 million state grant to Evident Technologies, a start-up company Abbruzzese had invested in, was due to Bruno’s influence.
The grant was announced by then-Gov. George Pataki and Bruno in 2002, but only $500,000 was actually delivered by Empire State Development. Prosecutors said part of that money, a $250,000 payment, was made by the state just days after Bruno signed his consulting agreement with Abbruzzese.
Jones, however, pointed out that the initial grant was announced 17 months before the consulting agreement started.
Abbruzzese, a Loudonville businessman, is expected to take the witness stand today. The trial resumes at 10 a.m. before Judge Gary L. Sharpe.
Bruno is being retried after being convicted in 2009, but then having the convictions overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court redefined the standards for an honest services fraud conviction.