Telecommunications entrepreneur Jared Abbruzzese emphatically denied ever trying to bribe or buy the influence of former state Senate leader Joseph Bruno during trial testimony Thursday in federal court.
“Absolutely not,” “no,” and “no, or ever, ever, ever,” he said at various times in response to a series of questions about bribery, kickbacks or influence-buying from Bruno defense attorney E. Stewart Jones of Troy.
The exchange came at the end of a day of testimony in which Abbruzzese was the only witness. Abbruzzese said the question of whether he sought to bribe Bruno had never been asked directly before during eight years of government investigation of his relationship with Bruno, including the first federal trial in 2009.
Though called as a prosecution witness, Abbruzzese often sparred with Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak, and was twice cautioned by Judge Gary L. Sharpe about giving lengthy and digressive answers. Testifying under a grant of immunity, he often said he didn’t remember the events Pericak sought to question him about.
Bruno, 85, of Brunswick, is on trial in U.S. District Court on two counts of honest services fraud, in his second trial on the charges. Prosecutors contend the powerful Republican leader accepted $440,000 in compensation from Abbruzzese in 2004 and 2005 as a form of bribe or kickback for legislative favors.
The businessman, who then lived in Loudonville and now lives in Florida, had invested in a company with interests before state government, as well as having a personal interest in privatizing the state horse-racing franchise, prosecutors contend.
Abbruzzese began paying Bruno $20,000 a month as a “consultant” after Bruno approached him while flying home from a Florida golf trip aboard Abbruzzese’s private jet in February 2004, Abbruzzese testified. The men had been playing cards with two other trip participants, and when Abbruzzese got up to go to the galley, he said that Bruno followed him to bring it up privately, and he wasn’t happy about it.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate at that point,” Abbruzzese testified.
However, over the next week or so the men did reach an agreement, though Bruno initially sought payments of $30,000 or $40,000 per month, Abbruzzese said. Abbruzzese said he also told Bruno during his initial approach that he wanted to be sure hiring a state legislator was legal.
“I wanted to make sure it was doable legally, ethically and everything else,” Abbruzzese said.
In explaining that state legislators can have outside employment, he said Bruno told him that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s New York City law firm represented the state Trial Lawyer’s Association — an allegation that also came up in the first trial, and which Silver’s spokesman denied.
A lawyer from the Trial Lawyer’s Association is expected to testify in response, perhaps today.
Abbruzzese specialized in turning around distressed companies, and owned several telecommunications technology companies that regularly hired consultants. He said he decided to hire Bruno for the doors Bruno could open and the potential business opportunities he could bring.
In March 2004, Bruno was hired for $10,000 a month each by two different Abbruzzese companies, Capital & Technology Advisors and Communications Technology Advisors. They were one-year deals, but Abbruzzese ended the contracts in December, two months early.
“I expected certain business opportunities to occur, and they did not occur,” he testified.
A signed agreement ending those contracts thanks Bruno for introducing Abbruzzese to “golf course opportunities, general telecommunications advice” and for an introduction to Bruno friend Lenny Fassler, another telecommunications executive.
Abbruzzese said the “golf course opportunities” included an introduction to Donald Trump in Florida, and playing a round of golf with Trump at Trump’s course there.
Bruno, before assuming his Senate leadership post in 1994, ran Coradian Corp., a successful telecommunications company.
After December 2004, Bruno was paid $20,000 a month for six months by Motient Corp., a satellite communications company Abbruzzese owned. Abbruzzese said Bruno was to help lobby the Federal Communications Commission and Congress on issues related to protecting its communications radio frequency interests.
Prosecutors, however, have produced emails showing the company’s other Washington lobbyists didn’t know anything about Bruno’s work.
“He worked directly with me,” Abbruzzese said.
In August 2005, Bruno’s consulting contract was moved to a company called TerreStar, whose CEO terminated the contract when Motient executives couldn’t say what Bruno had done for them.
As official actions in return for the payments, prosecutors contend Bruno provided a $250,000 state grant payment to Evident Technologies, a nanotech startup Abbruzzese had invested in, and a $2.5 million grant to Sage Colleges to provide lab space to Evident at its Troy campus.
Abbruzzese, however, was unwavering in stating that the state grant to Evident — which was supposed to be $1.5 million, though only $500,000 was paid — was a deal he struck personally with then-Gov. George Pataki.
“That was a deal I struck with Gov. Pataki that the money would be spent, and the company reimbursed for it,” he testified.
The business executive remains offended that only $500,000 was delivered to Evident, since Evident spent the full amount assuming it would be reimbursed. “It was mind-boggling to me,” he said.
Abbruzzese acknowledged he and Bruno both had an interest at the time in privatizing the NYRA franchise to run the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct thoroughbred tracks — but said he couldn’t recall specific conversations between them about it.
Abbruzzese also paid Bruno $80,000 in 2005 for a young race horse the men owned that never raced. Abbruzzese denied agreeing to take the horse, which the men owned in partnership, for nothing, but then paying $80,000 for it after the TerreStar consulting agreement was ended four months early.
“Why would I do that?” Abbruzzese responded to the question.
“That’s a great question, Mr. Abbruzzese,” Pericak responded.
In 2009, Abbruzzese testified he paid $80,000 because that was the unpaid balance on the consulting contract, but he did not repeat that testimony Thursday.
There was also testimony about campaign contributions made by Abbruzzese, which was allowed by Judge Sharpe over the defense’s objections. Defense lawyer William Dreyer of Albany said it could prompt a motion for a mistrial, though he hasn’t yet made one.
Abbruzzese’s cross-examination will continue at 10 a.m. today.