Jurors heard about Joe Bruno's efforts to influence who runs the New York horse racing franchise at the former state Senate leader's federal corruption trial today.
There was testimony from two leaders of the New York Racing Association during 2004-2006 that Bruno sought a role in racing for Timothy Smith, a thoroughbred industry leader with ties to Jared Abbruzzese, the businessman from whom Bruno is accused of accepting $440,000 in bribes in 2004-2005.
Smith was an advocate for privatizing the state racing franchise when it expired at the end of 2007, replacing NYRA with a private operator. He later became part of Empire Racing, a private bidding group chaired by Abbruzzese, though at an earlier point in 2005 he sought to reform the debt-ridden NYRA, a non-profit corporation often plagued by mismanagement allegations.
"Senator Bruno expressed a desire to somehow have Tim Smith included in the franchise discussion," testified Charles Hayward, president of NYRA at the time.
Hayward had a meeting with Bruno and his staff in Albany in November 2005. Hayward said he took Bruno's statement to be only a suggestion, but Charles Torani, Bruno's appointee to the the state Racing Franchise Oversight Board, then called him to reinforce the message.
Ultimately, NYRA retained the franchise to operate the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct tracks for another 25 years, but Hayward said he took Bruno's views seriously at the time.
"Senator Bruno was a very powerful man in government and in racing, and you would be a fool not to take his concerns seriously," Hayward said.
However, Albany real estate development John Nigro, one of Bruno's appointees to the ad hoc committee to select a new franchise operator, said Bruno never sought to influence his vote. The committee majority, including Nigro, voted in favor of a bid by Excelsior Racing, a group led by the Steinbrenner family and Richard Fields. Nigro was one of two defense witnesses to testify today, the first day to include defense testimony.
A deal struck by Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007 allowed NYRA to keep the racing franchise in return for conceding the contentious issue of who owned the three tracks and other real estate assets., The agreement established that they are owned by the state, not NYRA.
Bruno, 85, of Brunswick, is on trial in U.S. District Court on two charges of honest services fraud -- allegations that the powerful Republican accepted payments from Abbruzzese to influence his official actions. Bruno has denied the charges.
Testimony before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gary L. Sharpe will resume at 10 a.m. tomorrow.