For more than a decade, state Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno was a top power broker in New York. The backslapping former boxer had more bounce in his step than aides half his age and was gruffly unapologetic over the millions in pork projects that he grabbed for his upstate district.
On Monday, he faces trial on charges that could tarnish his legacy, send him to prison, and serve as a de facto indictment of Albany’s oft-criticized political culture.
Now 80, but still with the impeccable suits, thick silver hair perfectly groomed, and a boxer’s body still toned by pounding the punching bag, Bruno is taking the fight on with characteristic defiance.
Federal prosecutors accuse him of collecting $3.2 million in commissions and gifts over 13 years in return for using his state influence to benefit a dozen labor unions and three private businessmen. He has pleaded not guilty and denounced the eight-count January indictment as a politically motivated fishing expedition.
The trial, scheduled to start Monday, is expected to last weeks.
The charges against Bruno are the latest in a line of corruption cases against New York officials over the past two decades. Assembly Speaker Mel Miller was convicted of fraud in 1991 and Sen. Guy Velella went to jail for bribery conspiracy in 2004. Comptroller Alan Hevesi — re-elected while under indictment — was convicted of using state workers to chauffeur his wife in 2006. This year former Health Commissioner Antonia Novello, a former U.S. surgeon general, was convicted of using state workers to help her with shopping and other personal business.
Critics blame the political culture in Albany.
Lawrence Norden, senior counsel at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, said oversight has been lacking for a long time, particularly by legislators and partly the result of the concentration of power in three offices: The governor, Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker. By 2008, the Senate Ethics Committee hadn’t met in 10 years, he said. The committee held hearings again this year.
“What you’ve got is people see their jobs and keep their jobs by distributing pork. That’s really what a lot of the work in the Legislature is, and unfortunately, elsewhere at the state level,” Norden said. “Once it gets entrenched, it’s very difficult to get out of it because there’s so much self-reinforcing. Everybody’s invested in the game.”
Norden believes the trial will shed light on the “pay-to-play” culture that’s still “very much a reality” in the state capital.
“I think that’s what this prosecution is all about,” he said.
Whether or not a conviction will affect the practice, Norden said there’s no question that trial disclosures will add to the level of public disgust.
“All we can do at this point is hope that with enough shaming, the Legislature will start making the kind of necessary changes to affect the culture in Albany,” he said.
Bruno thrived in the system, grabbing the New York Senate’s Republican majority’s leadership post in a 1994 overthrow. He doggedly courted high-tech projects for New York, often in his district, but in many ways, Bruno was an old-time pol: he was a guy who used phrases like “a man’s man,” occasionally cursed in news conferences, paused to chat with young women reporters and interns, and seethed when he felt a handshake deal was broken.
His name is carried on a sprawling minor league ballpark and a bust of him is prominently displayed at the revamped Albany International Airport.
Bruno resigned last summer only months after Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer — the political nemesis Bruno once dismissed as “fancy, dance-y, prance-y” — fell from power in a prostitution scandal. The three-year federal investigation of Bruno led to charges a few months after that.
Free until trial without having to post bail, Bruno declined requests for an interview. In court papers, he acknowledged running a sideline consulting business since 1993 but said he simply got paid for work he did.
“I’m looking forward to the justice system and I have a lot of confidence in that and that a jury will decide our innocence,” Bruno said after a preliminary hearing Monday.
The ex-boxer, who still hits the speed bag, is now chief executive of a suburban Albany consulting company that flourished with state contracts during Bruno’s legislative tenure.
Prosecutors allege Bruno sold his favorable influence to union officials, who put their pension funds with the investment company and stock brokerage that paid him commissions. They charge he also helped three private businessmen with state interests, getting large payments in return. The indictment didn’t specify what they got, saying only that Bruno “did take discretionary official action on legislative, funding, contract, and regulatory issues” that benefited them. Prosecutors plan to detail that at trial.
Lobbyists, former state officials and union bosses are among more than 100 potential witnesses. Because of the statute of limitations, the charges stem from dealings only in the past five years. Prosecutors want restitution but haven’t yet calculated the precise amount, or the potential prison term. Authorities initially said he could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Bruno’s lawyers noted he was never accused of soliciting bribes, taking kickbacks or extorting or misappropriating state or federal funds.
Bruno’s defense team includes William Dreyer, a former federal prosecutor in Albany, and Abbe David Lowell, one of the nation’s top white-collar defense lawyers from Washington, D.C., whose clients have included Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, who was cleared by the Justice Department in a corruption investigation, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges. They claim the law and theory under which Bruno is being prosecuted — that New Yorkers had a right to his “honest services,” — is in a state of flux because of three cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe, a former prosecutor of organized crime, rejected defense motions for delays and to dismiss charges.