At Jack’s Oyster House early Friday afternoon, Joe Bruno was again the practiced politician, working the room the way he has for more than 40 years.
Family and friends surrounded and embraced the former powerful state Senate leader in the afterglow of his unexpectedly quick acquittal on felony charges that he accepting $360,000 in bribes from businessman Jared Abbruzzese nearly a decade ago.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling when the United States of America has been after you, how it weighs on your mind,” a jubilant Bruno said during an interview as his legal team and family members broke out champagne and awaited a celebratory lunch.
A jury reached its “not guilty” verdict on both counts against the hale 85-year-old just after noon Friday, having deliberated barely five hours following a two-week trial before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gary L. Sharpe. The jurors began deliberating about 3:15 p.m. Thursday after hearing nearly a full day of closing statements and legal instructions.
The verdict came barely three minutes after Sharpe responded to a puzzling note from the jury — asking whether a juror who notified her employer where she was must be disqualified — by telling the panel to continue deliberating.
Tears appeared in Bruno’s eyes as Sharpe read the verdict, and family and supporters who have attended throughout the trial applauded and hugged. Bruno acknowledged being overcome by emotion at that moment.
“I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you,” Bruno said on the courthouse steps moments after the verdict. “We’re just going to pick up our lives and go forward.”
Bruno, of Brunswick, was the state Senate’s powerful Republican majority leader from 1994 to 2008 when he resigned under FBI investigation — the investigation that led to the recent charges.
Bruno was legendary for the power he wielded and he remains a popular figure who had passersby on Broadway congratulating him and shaking his hand after the verdict.
“This happens all the time,” Bruno told reporters who surrounded him as he made his way to Jack’s, itself a legendary political hangout near the courthouse.
Bruno had been on trial on two counts of honest services fraud — allegations that he accepted bribes from Abbruzzese in the form of $20,000 per month consulting contracts in 2004-2005, and an $80,000 payment for what prosecutors called a “worthless” racehorse.
The acquittal ends a nine-year effort by the government to prosecute Bruno for official corruption.
“The case is closed,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian.
This was Bruno’s second trial on honest services fraud charges. In 2009, a jury considering an eight-count indictment deliberated for eight days before convicting him on only the two counts tied to Abbruzzese, based on Bruno having undisclosed conflicts of interest.
That conviction was reversed after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 changed the definition of honest services fraud to require proof that accused public officials took bribes or kickbacks, rather than just had hidden conflicts of interest. The government then got a new indictment last year, charging that the payments from Abbruzzese were bribes.
Prosecutors contended the payments were to win grants for Abbruzzese companies and to win Bruno’s backing for his efforts to take control of the state thoroughbred racing franchise, which were ultimately unsuccessful.
An appeals court ruled that the second indictment did not constitute double-jeopardy, allowing the trial to go forward.
At a news conference after the verdict, Hartunian noted that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in overturning the earlier verdict, said it believed there was enough evidence that Bruno took bribes to let a new jury consider the matter.
“Although this is not the outcome we expected based on the evidence presented, we believe that justice is served when a case is fully and fairly adjudicated before an impartial, attentive jury,” Hartunian said in a prepared statement.
He said his office will be undeterred from pursuing future official corruption cases.
“As the history of this case demonstrates, whether Mr. Bruno’s conduct constituted a federal crime needed to be decided by a jury,” Hartunian said.
Prosecutors said Abbruzzese sought to have Bruno’s influence behind his efforts to take over the state racing franchise that was due to expire in 2007, and to secure nearly $3 million in state grant money to benefit Evident Technologies, a startup company he had invested in.
The defense contended that all of Bruno’s official actions were legitimate legislative activity and the Bruno-Abbruzzese relationship was about private business consulting — Bruno is a former telecommunications executive and Abbruzzese an investor in telecommunications companies — and nothing else.
“There was never a crime committed. There was never any agreement or understanding that the senator would do anything in exchange for money,” said defense attorney E. Stewart Jones of Troy, who delivered an impassioned summation Thursday in Bruno’s defense.
Bruno was defended by a team of lawyers led by Jones and William Dreyer of Albany, two of the region’s most-respected defense attorneys.
Bruno, who represented Rensselaer and part of Saratoga counties in the Senate from 1976 to 2008, was one of the three most powerful men in state government while he was majority leader.
He used his influence to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development projects to the Capital Region, including improvements at Albany International Airport and the Rensselaer Amtrak station, and laying the groundwork for GlobalFoundries to come to Saratoga County.
Defense attorneys were able to work a few references to his good works into the trial testimony.
Hartunian said the fact that Bruno remains a popular politician with a long legacy of legislative accomplishments, is aging and is a recent cancer survivor are not reasons why he should not have been charged if a crime was committed.
“We bring cases based on the facts and the law, not popularity or other good works, and we do not shy away from difficult cases, especially those involving the conduct of public officials who intertwine personal business and the public trust,” Hartunian said.
Hartunian also denied any vendetta against Bruno by the government. “We don’t seek scalps, we seek justice,” he said, responding to one of the charges Jones made in Thursday’s summation.
Hartunian couldn’t say how much money the prosecution of Bruno cost the federal government, though Jones estimated it at “tens of millions” over the years.
Bruno, who underwent surgery for kidney cancer last September, said he is cancer-free. He has a checkup scheduled next week at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.