BRUNO: A LIFE ON TRIAL

The ex-state senator's story starts in poverty, turns to great political power and wealth, but a federal jury will write the final chapter

BRENDAN J. LYONS SENIOR WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, November 1, 2009

ALBANY -- He was the ultimate rainmaker. A political success story for the history books. Joseph L. Bruno transcended an impoverished upbringing and rose to the top of state government.


For more than three decades, the Rensselaer County Republican, a boxer and Korean War veteran, was defined in the New York Senate by his chiseled looks, distinctive charisma and toe-to-toe legislative style. He brazenly squared off with governors and thrived in the shadowy game of state politics, rising through the ranks to seize the Senate majority leader position in an historic coup in 1994.


From town playgrounds to the region's largest airport, Bruno's legacy endures in the millions of taxpayer dollars doled out in his name while he shared control of the state's coffers.


According to the Justice Department, his influence was for sale. Now, at age 80 and out of power, Bruno finds his legend is on the ropes.


On Monday, Bruno's trial on felony corruption charges begins in U.S. District Court. Federal prosecutors have invoked a potent statute to accuse Bruno of using his position to enrich himself through secret deals hidden from the public he took an oath to serve. A jury of 12 will decide whether Bruno broke the law, or, as his lawyers have argued, was unfairly singled out for prosecution under a theft of honest services statute they claim is unconstitutional.


The case marks the first time a person of Bruno's political stature has faced such a prosecution in New York. Yet around the country, other public officials facing similar cases to the one facing Bruno have been convicted despite their vehemently pronounced claims of innocence. For federal prosecutors, the honest services statute, which is slated for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, has become the Justice Department's favored weapon in public corruption cases.


The years-long FBI investigation of Bruno began around December 2005, when reports surfaced Bruno had flown from Schenectady to LaGuardia Airport in New York City aboard a private jet chartered by Loudonville businessman Jared Abbruzzese. The flight was arranged for Bruno after he was unable to secure a state-owned helicopter at a time when he was feuding with Gov. George Pataki.


The flight ignited the FBI's interest. Over the next several years, federal agents deeply plied Bruno's relationship with Abbruzzese, whose dealings with Bruno are the subject of four of the indictment's eight counts. Yet, the Abbruzzese-Bruno relationship is only a portion of the case, and the indictment outlines a scheme to defraud by Bruno spanning 13 years and involving numerous individuals and entities, all of whom had varying interests in state government.


On Jan. 23, more than three years after the probe began, the felony indictment that Bruno fought hard to prevent was unsealed in a courthouse just a few blocks from the Capitol where he reigned as Senate majority leader for nearly 14 years. The iconic businessman arrived in a BMW and flashed a smile as he brushed past reporters. He took an elevator to the fourth floor, walking into the courtroom with his marked confidence, and politely introduced himself to the prosecutors. Minutes later, a magistrate judge explained the charges to Bruno, who, if convicted, could face a sentence ranging from home confinement to multiple years in prison.


''This is a moment that I hoped would never come in my life,'' Bruno said following his arraignment. ''There is nothing, I share with you, more serious than to stand before a judge and hear yourself formally charged with breaching your personal and professional code of conduct.''


Not surprisingly, Bruno fought back immediately. Although retired from the Senate for six months by that point, he used money from a campaign war chest to reserve a conference room at a nearby hotel.


Bruno was animated as he read a prepared statement criticizing the FBI's three-year investigation as a ''get-Joe-Bruno campaign.'' He lashed out at what he called a ''politicized U.S. Attorney'' and warned his fellow lawmakers they could be next.


For their part, prosecutors have built a case they said shows Bruno abused his powerful Senate post to secretly do business with at least five groups or individuals who paid him more than $3 million between 1993 and 2006. The payments were not bribes, but ''gifts'' that Bruno was obligated to disclose to the citizens of New York, according to the charges.


Bruno and his defense team have said he reported every financial relationship he was required to disclose under state law. Bruno said his business deals were reviewed by attorneys and that he had a right as a ''part-time'' lawmaker to outside business interests.


''This is a threat to everyone in government because if they can indict me for what I've done over the last 12 to 15 years of my life ... I'm a businessman, I am not a lawyer,'' Bruno said in January. ''I have a right to earn a living and I did it legally and I did it right. I checked with counsel. I checked with ethics people. I called the FBI and asked them to clarify for me what I could do and what I couldn't do. They told me they couldn't answer that, that you're on your own.''


A central part of the prosecution's case will hinge on what Bruno actually did for the money he received. Much of the money was paid directly to Bruno or to private consulting businesses he set up and operated from his Brunswick home.


Andrew T. Baxter, acting U.S. attorney in New York's Northern District, said their allegations are that Bruno ''exploited his office'' and his private consulting work consisted primarily of the promise of his influence.


''Bruno did not perform legitimate consulting services commensurate with these substantial consulting fees which were in essence gifts from the individuals or related entities who benefited from his official actions,'' Baxter said in January. ''Bruno failed to report these gifts as he was required to do under state ethics and reporting laws. Bruno also misrepresented to two of these consulting clients that he had received clearance from the legislative ethics committee to receive payments from them, when in fact he had not sought such ethics opinions relating to those particular outside activities.''


The government's more than 100 witnesses will include labor union officials who have been convicted or charged in connection with unrelated financial scandals, including bribery and extortion. The witnesses slated to testify also include Bruno's close friends, former political allies, Senate colleagues and people who worked for the Legislature's ethics panel.


At times the trial may well provide an unprecedented look at the state's murky ethics forums, where legislators' requests for opinions from a secretive panel are never publicly revealed, and financial disclosure forms are routinely cleansed of details such as financial earnings before being made public.


Prosecutors said some people who cooperated in the grand jury may turn squeamish on the witness stand at Bruno's trial. They told U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe some witnesses may be subject to questioning as hostile witnesses. In instances where a witness attempts to recant or soften their grand jury testimony, prosecutors said they're prepared to pull out grand jury transcripts and clarify for the trial jury what the person previously said under oath about their dealings with Bruno.


In the months leading up to the trial, Bruno's supporters have come to his aid as word was being spread through the community his legal fees have soared. Bruno's campaign war chest, which in better times contained around $2 million, was regularly used to pay for restaurants, phone bills, floral arrangements, party supplies and other day-to-day costs related to his lavish political lifestyle. It has since dwindled as criminal defense bills mounted.


Bruno declined to answer questions last month about his campaign accounts or efforts to privately raise money for legal expenses. A statement by a spokesman said: ''The government spent years and untold millions of taxpayers dollars in this case. We are fortunate to have friends and supporters willing to step up to level this playing field.''


John Nigro, an Albany commercial real estate developer and friend of Bruno's, signed an open letter that's been widely distributed to solicit contributions to Bruno's ''legal defense fund.'' Nigro's signature at the bottom of the one-page letter is next to that of James Barba, the head of Albany Medical Center. Barba declined a request for an interview but said through a spokesman it was a private matter.


''No one has done more to fight for us here in New York state than Joe,'' the letter states. ''Now the time has come for us to help him in his fight.''


Nigro said he doesn't know who has the key to the Albany post office box listed as the place for supporters to send money. ''All contributions will be kept private and are not reported publicly,'' the letter reads.


''I and several of us, many of us people who have benefited in the Capital Region just felt we need to say something and give something back,'' Nigro said of his decision to sign the letter. ''We're a believer, a firm believer, that this is going no place but unfortunately it will cost him a lot of money to get there. We feel an obligation for all that he's done for our families and our futures.''


Bruno's efforts to garner state and federal aid for the Capital Region has been a strong subtext in the case. Since his indictment, Bruno has attended numerous public events, posing for news cameras and keeping his message upbeat.


Bruno is poised for a court showdown that in January he said would be settled in front of a jury of his peers. ''I've had to fight my whole life for myself, for what I believe in,'' Bruno said at the time.


Last week, during a break in his final pretrial conference, Bruno was more subdued, but still firm.


''Confident,'' he said when asked how he was doing.


Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com





TIP:


Inside


A4 Courtroom schematic


A5 Convictions under federal law





TIP:


On the Web


For Twitter and blog updates throughout the day, court documents and witness profiles, go to http://timesunion.com/bruno





FEDERAL CASE PREVIEW





*THE DEFENDANT: JOSEPH L. BRUNO*


Joseph L. Bruno, 80, R-Brunswick, was elected as a New York state senator in the 43rd District in 1975. He began his Senate service in January 1976 representing Rensselaer County and part of Saratoga County. From January 1995 through his resignation in July 2008 Bruno served as the Senate majority leader, making him one of the three most powerful political figures in New York. As majority leader, Bruno controlled the Senate agenda, its voting, and negotiated state budget allocations with the governor and Assembly speaker.


Bruno is renowned in the Capital Region for his efforts to steer millions of dollars in tax dollars and government grants to upstate New York. He takes credit for publicly funded projects such as the expansion of Albany International Airport, the Rensselaer rail station, a computer-chip fab plant under construction in Malta and many other taxpayer-subsidized projects.


Bruno, one of eight children of Italian immigrants, was born April 8, 1929, in Glens Falls. He was a self-described mediocre student who as a boy worked in pastry shops and sold newspapers and blocks of ice. Bruno, an amateur boxer, served in the Army as a sergeant in Korea. He later earned a business degree from Skidmore College. He founded Coradian Corp., which sold telephone systems to government and business, and later sold the business. In 1966, he worked on the campaign staff of Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and later as a special assistant to Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea, a Republican.


In approximately late 2005, the FBI initiated a criminal investigation of Bruno related to his business interests, political fundraising and use of state aircraft. Bruno became CEO of CMA Consulting Services in Latham shortly after leaving public office last year. In January 2009, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Albany on eight felony charges related to his alleged theft of honest services. Bruno pleaded not guilty and has said publicly he did nothing wrong.





*THE CHARGES*


- Count 1 -- Bruno received $1.37 million from Wright Investors' Service of Milford, Conn., and $632,116 from McGinn, Smith & Co., an Albany brokerage firm, as a ''consultant.'' His compensation centered around steering state labor union leaders to invest pension funds through the companies. Bruno concealed details of his work in violation of state law and federal Securities and Exchange Commission rules. Bruno's HSBC checking account received payments from Wright Investors' holding company, Winthrop Corp., from January 2004 to December 2006.


- Count 2 -- During a 2004 meeting at his Capitol office, Bruno introduced lobbyists and various state agency officials to representatives of Asentinel, a Tennessee telephone-bill management company that paid Bruno undisclosed sums for accounts he referred. The underlying mail fraud charge alleges Bruno sent a related e-mail to Asentinel's Memphis headquarters on Aug. 5, 2004.


- Count 3 -- Companies controlled by Leonard J. Fassler, a Westchester County businessman, paid Bruno $468,000 as a ''consultant'' for work not performed. Bruno allegedly formed ''Capital Business Consultants'' to conceal his interest in Microknowledge, a Fassler-backed company which had contracts with the state. The alleged criminal offense centers on seven payments made by a Fassler company, VyTek Wireless, Inc., to Bruno's other company, Business Consultants, from January 2004 through December 2006.


- Count 4 -- From March 2004 through November 2004, Bruno or his consulting firm received 11 payments from companies controlled by Jared E. Abbruzzese of Loudonville. Bruno allegedly did not perform legitimate work for the Abbruzzese companies, Communication Technology Advisors LLC and Capital & Technology Advisors LLC, and the payments were in effect gifts.


- Count 5 -- Another Abbruzzese company, Motient Corporation, paid Bruno $120,000 between January and June 2005 on six separate occasions. Abbruzzese, according to the indictment, had an interest in state government matters and Bruno's legislative powers. Abbruzzese was part of a group seeking control of New York's thoroughbred race tracks.


- Count 6 -- TerreStar Networks, Inc., a company affiliated with Abbruzzese, paid Bruno's consulting business $40,000 in 2005. A TerreStar executive terminated the contract early, costing Bruno $80,000 in additional payments. Abbruzzese allegedly made up the shortfall by buying a ''virtually worthless'' horse from Bruno's Mountain View Farm for $80,000, which included $40,000 in cash and $40,000 in forgiveness of a debt. The payment was made through Bazaguma LLC, a company set up by Abbruzzese.


- Count 7 -- From March 2004 through May 2005 Bruno was paid $270,000 through a consulting agreement with BB Gardner Management Corporation, a company connected to Russell C. Ball, whose companies, including Roadway Contracting Inc., had an interest in state legislative matters. Bruno ''did not perform legitimate work.'' Bruno's Capital Business Consultants received 14 payments from Ball's company, BB Gardner Management Corporation.


- Count 8 -- Bruno failed to disclose his participation through Mountain View Farm in a partnership with Abbruzzese involving thoroughbred race horses. The charge alleges Bruno received a check from Abbruzzese's company, Bazaguma LLC, on Nov. 17, 2005.


BOX:


Bruno is charged with scheming to defraud the state and its citizens of the right to his honest services by soliciting money from people and businesses with an interest in state government. The alleged scheme lasted from 1993 until December 2006, with Bruno receiving $3.19 million.





*THE JUDGE*


U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe has been on the federal bench since 1997. He was previously an assistant U.S. attorney and former Broome County assistant district attorney. Sharpe became a supervisory assistant U.S. Attorney for New York's Northern District in 1982 and later served as U.S. Attorney from 1992-94. Sharpe, a Vietnam veteran, earned a bachelor's degree magna cum laude from the University at Buffalo in 1971 and a law degree from Cornell Law School in 1974. Sharpe's reputation among lawyers: he is fair at sentencings due to his knowledge of the law, moves trials along, reads all submissions and has high intelligence.





*THE PROSECUTION*





ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY ELIZABETH C. COOMBE, CO-PROSECUTOR


Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth C. Coombe, co-prosecutor. A former law clerk to the chief judge of U.S. District Court in Minnesota, Coombe has been a federal prosecutor since 1998. She joined the Albany office in 2003. Coombe has been a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and also focuses on public corruption and economic crime cases. One of her most notable prosecutions in Albany was against members of the Ozbay family, who are Turkish immigrants who ran several USA Gas stations. Four defendants in that case are serving prison terms of more than 87 months following their conviction in a $23 million structuring and tax evasion case. Coombe also was co-prosecutor with William Pericak in USA v. Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, Albany immigrants convicted on terrorism-related charges in an FBI sting case. Coombe received a bachelor's degree in Soviet studies from Hamilton College and received her law degree with honors from the University of Michigan (1992).





ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY WILLIAM C. PERICAK, CO-PROSECUTOR


Assistant U.S. Attorney William C. Pericak, co-prosecutor. Pericak has been attorney-in-charge of the Albany office since February 2006, and deputy chief of the criminal division for the previous four years. He became a federal prosecutor in 1989. Pericak was in private practice in Boston previously. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from SUNY Buffalo (1977) and a law degree from Boston University (1980). Pericak has prosecuted a number of high-profile cases, including the conviction of Schenectady insurance magnate Albert Lawrence for fraud. More recently Pericak prosecuted Richard Vallee, a Canadian Hells Angels member sentenced to life in prison for the firebombing death of a government witness. He also prosecuted Konstantyn Pekerman, a Ukraine citizen convicted of Medicare fraud in one of the largest schemes of its kind on record. Pekerman netted more than $2 million without setting foot in the United States. Pericak also was co-prosecutor in a case involving the conviction of two Muslim immigrants from Albany snared in an FBI counterterrorism sting.





*THE DEFENSE*





WILLIAM J. DREYER, CHIEF DEFENSE COUNCIL


William J. Dreyer has been Bruno's chief defense counsel in Albany during the FBI investigation. Dreyer is a former federal prosecutor with 30-plus years of experience. Dreyer specializes in white-collar crime and public corruption cases. He successfully defended former Rensselaer County Executive Henry Zwack against criminal charges related to a job scandal. Another notable client of Dreyer's was former Rensselaer County Democratic Party Chairman Edward F. McDonough, now deceased, who was convicted on charges related to an insurance kickback scheme in the early 1990s. Dreyer is a 1966 graduate of Bowdoin College and a 1969 graduate of New York Law School. He served as a captain, JAGC, in the Army and then became an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York and served as chief assistant from 1976 to 1980.








ABBE D. LOWELL, LEAD DEFENSE COUNCIL


Abbe D. Lowell, who is based in Washington, D.C., is Bruno's lead defense counsel. Lowell is an experienced criminal defense attorney who has represented numerous high-profile clients, including lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, who was cleared by the U.S. Justice Department following an investigation of gifts-for-contracts allegations. According to his biography, Lowell has successfully defended clients against allegations of conspiracy, election law violations, bank fraud, insurance fraud, mail and wire fraud, securities fraud, money laundering and public corruption. Lowell has twice been counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and served pro bono as special counselor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in an investigation related to war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. He graduated from Columbia University in 1974 and Columbia Law School in 1977.





*CONVICTED: Public officials from around the nation convicted of theft of honest services*


Former Conn. Gov. John G. Rowland


Pleads guilty in late 2004 to one count of conspiracy to commit theft of honest services and tax fraud for accepting free improvements to a vacation cottage as well as gifts from underlings. Sentenced to 366 days in prison, four months house arrest and 100 hours of community service. Released in February 2006 after serving 10 months.





Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff


Agrees to sell out members of Congress involved in his pay-to-play schemes in 2006, pleading guilty to three counts of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials with goodies such as luxury trips, campaign contributions, jobs for family members and fancy meals. Receives a reduced sentence of four years in 2008 for cooperating with federal investigators. Scheduled for release in December 2010.





Former Ohio Congressman Robert W. Ney


Agrees in September 2006 to plead guilty to federal corruption charges for involvement in extensive pay-to-play schemes with GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Traded influence for campaign contributions, sports tickets, meals, gambling chips and luxury travel to places that included Lake George. Reports to federal prison in March 2007 and transfers to a halfway house in Cincinnati in February 2008. Released in August 2008.





Former Ill. Gov. George H. Ryan


Charged in a 2003 with trading state business for cash and gifts and funding campaign activities with public money during his career as secretary of state and governor of Illinois. Found guilty by a jury in 2006 and sentenced to six-and-a-half years in federal prison. Scheduled for release in July 2013, when he will be 79.





Former Pa. State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo


Convicted of 137 counts by a federal jury in March 2009 on charges of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Stole services from the state by using state employees for personal and campaign work on state time. Also defrauded a nonprofit. Sentenced in July 2009 to four years and seven months in federal prison. Scheduled for release in August 2013.





Former Calif. Congressman Randall Cunningham


Pleads guilty in November 2005 to conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion and improperly steer business to Pentagon contractors in exchange for substantial bribes. Also pleads guilty to tax evasion for a failure to disclose income in 2004. Used staff to influence officials to benefit contractors. Sentenced to eight years and four months in federal prison in March 2006. Scheduled for release in June 2013.





Former Newark, N.J., Mayor Sharpe James


Indicted in July 2007 on 33 counts of fraud and depriving government of honest services and conspiracy charges for failing to disclose his romantic relationship with Tamika Riley, a publicist who purchased valuable city property at a bargain basement price and then flipped it for a profit of $600,000. Convicted, along with Riley, in April 2008. Sentenced in July 2009 to 27 months in prison.





--Sarah Hinman Ryan