The judge overseeing former state Senate leader Joseph Bruno’s federal court corruption trial late Monday denied a defense request for a mistrial.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gary L. Sharpe ruled from the bench on a motion to end Bruno’s trial immediately on the grounds that prosecutors have improperly introduced evidence about campaign contributions made by Jared Abbruzzese, the businessman Bruno is accused of accepting bribes from.
The defense raised objections last week when there was first testimony about those contributions, and Sharpe has already twice instructed the jury that information about the campaign contributions is to be used for context but not as evidence of a crime. He said he will give the instruction again at the end of the case.
Prosecutors said they are using the contribution information only to flesh out the Abbruzzese-Bruno relationship in 2004-2005, the years Abbruzzese paid Bruno $360,000 as a “business consultant.”
“It has gone beyond presenting the story,” defense attorney Benjamin Hill told Sharpe in making the mistrial motion after the jury had been sent home for the day. Hill said the information has been presented to make it seem like the contributions were an illegal gift, with images of donation checks shown on video screens, just like the consulting payment checks from Abbruzzese.
“That is a bell that cannot be unrung,” Hill told the court.
While Sharpe’s quick denial of the motion was expected, the defense’s action preserves the issue in case there is a conviction and future appeal.
Bruno, 85, of Brunswick, who was the Senate’s Republican majority leader from 1994 to 2008, is on trial for the second time on charges of “honest services fraud” — that he deprived the public of his honest services by accepting money from Abbruzzese as a bribe.
The government alleges that in return for the payments, Bruno just days after the first consulting agreement was signed released a $250,000 grant payment to Evident Technologies of Troy, a startup tech company Abbruzzese had invested in.
The indictment also alleges Bruno steered $2.5 million to Russell Sage College in 2005 to create new lab space for Evident.
On Monday, prosecutors continued to hammer on their theme that Bruno did virtually nothing for the $20,000 per month Abbruzzese paid him or his company, Capital Business Consultants, between March 2004 and August 2005.
Abbruzzese owned several telecommunications companies and Bruno formerly owned a telecommunications company.
Christopher Downie, chief operating officer of one of the companies, Motient Corp., said he didn’t know what Bruno did for the $120,000 the company paid him between January and June 2005 for lobbying the Federal Communications Commission.
“What did Capital Business Consultants do?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe in one of several similar exchanges.
“I know what he was engaged for,” Downie responded.
“Do you know what he actually did?”
“I do not,” Downie said.
Downie acknowledged, however, that Abbruzzese himself led the company’s federal lobbying efforts, and he didn’t know everything that Motient’s lobbyists did.
“I don’t recall him being active,” said another witness, Robert Brumley, who was president of Terre-Star Networks, another company owned by Abbruzzese that paid Bruno. He testified he was unaware for several months that Bruno’s contract had been terminated in August 2005.
Brumley said the kind of open-ended consulting contract Bruno signed, with no specific duties spelled out in it, isn’t unusual for corporate consulting arrangements.
A bankruptcy business adviser who knew Abbruzzese said he didn’t know the businessman was paying Bruno, but he knew they were friends.
“Jerry did talk very fondly and grandly about Sen. Bruno,” Steven Lampe testified.
There was also testimony from two horsemen about the low value of a thoroughbred filly Abbruzzese paid Bruno $80,000 for as their horse-breeding partnership was being dissolved in late 2005.
“She was probably a $5,000 horse at the time,” said Stuart Morris, a partner in Highclere Farm of Lexington, Ky., who evaluated he filly.
The horse was small and wasn’t fast, and was eventually given away after being sent to Florida for training, according to testimony by trainer James Crupi. Crupi was unable to appear for health reasons, but a transcript of an earlier deposition was read into the record.
Francis Gluchowski, at the time a Senate staff lawyer and the staff ethics specialist, testified that Bruno called him in February 2004 about the initial consulting contract, and he advised Bruno to keep good business records because of the amount of money involved.
Gluchowski said Bruno told him he didn’t know of any business Abbruzzese had before state government, and an Internet search by Gluchowski’s staff also didn’t connect Abbruzzese with any pending state business.
Gluchowski, who also prepared Bruno’s annual ethics disclosure forms in those years, will continue answering questions today.
Testimony will resume at 10 a.m. with Coombe saying the prosecution is likely to conclude its case by late in the day.