It’s uncontested that businessman Jared Abbruzzese paid Joseph L. Bruno $20,000 per month while he was the state Senate Republican majority leader.
Whether those payments in 2004 and 2005 were illegal bribes to buy the powerful politician’s influence or a legitimate consulting deal is now in the hands of a federal court jury to decide.
Jurors in Bruno’s U.S. District Court trial on two charges of honest services fraud deliberated for about two hours Thursday and will return this morning to continue deliberating.
On Thursday, the jury of nine women and three men heard competing versions of events involving the deeply troubled New York Racing Association and Abbruzzese’s efforts to take over the racing franchise when NYRA’s right to run three thoroughbred tracks expired in 2007.
Abbruzzese paid Bruno in hopes it would help him win the franchise, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe said.
“The real prize here was the NYRA franchise and Jerry Abbruzzese’s efforts to take over the franchise,” said Coombe, the government’s lead prosecutor.
Bruno is accused, among other things, of using his influence to push for the removal of NYRA and replacement of NYRA’s leadership.
The defense contends that the payments were for legitimate business consulting, and the case is made up of half-truths and misinterpretations of innocent events.
“They don’t care about the truth. They want Sen. Bruno’s scalp, truth be damned,” boomed defense attorney E. Stewart Jones, whose voice fluctuated between a shout and a whisper during a nearly two-hour summation.
Jones said that everyone concerned about racing at the time was looking to replace NYRA, which had a history of financial problems and eventually filed for bankruptcy.
“Joseph Bruno and anyone else who cared about horse racing in New York wanted NYRA gone,” Jones said. “The government case is as bankrupt and devoid of truth as NYRA was.”
The government, however, said Bruno sized up Abbruzzese as someone he could exploit for financial gain.
“You’ve heard the story of a very powerful man and how he exploited his office for personal gain,” Coombe told jurors.
Bruno, 85, of Brunswick, was the influential leader of the Senate majority from 1995 to 2008, when he resigned while under FBI investigation.
During eight days of trial testimony, jurors heard numerous witnesses say they were unaware of any work Bruno did in return for the $360,000 Abbruzzese paid him for telecommunications business consulting between March 2004 and August 2005.
According to testimony, Bruno approached Abbruzzese about a consulting agreement while returning from a Florida golf trip in January 2004 aboard Abbruzzese’s private jet.
“He had sized up Jerry Abbruzzese as someone he could soak for money,” Coombe said.
In addition, the men were partners in a thoroughbred breeding partnership from 2004-05. When it was dissolved in 2005, Abbruzzese paid Bruno $80,000 for what prosecutors contend was a “worthless” horse.
Shortly after Abbruzzese retained Bruno in 2004, Bruno appointed Abbruzzese business associate Wayne Barr to an open seat on the NYRA board, though Barr resigned a year later. By 2005, Abbruzzese had developed a plan to put together a coalition of racing and gaming interests called Empire Racing to pursue the racing franchise.
By late 2005, Bruno was calling for replacement of NYRA’s leadership because of the franchise’s $35 million deficit and allegations of mismanagement. That was thoughtful decision-making, not a response to being bribed, Jones told jurors.
“The NYRA franchise was New York’s worst nightmare. Sen. Bruno was racing in New York’s best friend,” Jones said.
Abbruzzese testified during the trial and denied he bribed Bruno. He said Bruno provided him with an introduction to Donald Trump and other powerful people, though prosecutors said those introductions didn’t occur until after the consulting deal had ended.
Abbruzzese testified with immunity from prosecution for everything but perjury, though prosecutors said he lied on the witness stand about those introductions and other matters.
“If Mr. Abbruzzese was Pinocchio, his nose would poke the people in the back of the room,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak.
Eventually, a state-appointed Commission on the Future of Racing in 2006 recommended another bidder to take over the racing franchise, with Bruno’s three appointees voting against Abbruzzese’s group. Prosecutors contend that vote should be discounted because the FBI investigation of Bruno was by then public knowledge.
NYRA retained the franchise under a deal struck later with Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
In addition to the NYRA allegations, Bruno is accused of authorizing a $250,000 state grant payment to Evident Technologies, a startup company Abbruzzese had invested in, and providing a $2.5 million grant to Russell Sage College in Troy to build new lab space to be leased to the company.
“There’s no way Sen. Bruno would get $20,000 a month to do nothing if he wasn’t a powerful politician who controlled millions of dollars in grants,” Pericak told the jury.
The defense said both those grants were legitimate, with the work on them done by Senate staff, without Bruno’s direct intervention.
Bruno is being tried for a second time on fraud charges. His first trial on an eight-count indictment in 2009 ended with convictions on only two counts tied to Abbruzzese. Those convictions were overturned on appeal in 2011, but the government in 2013 obtained a new indictment.