Joseph Bruno (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
ALBANY – The retrial of Joseph Bruno for fraudulently trading on his position as the most powerful Republican in the New York State Legislature will begin Monday in the Northern District of New York.
Sixty-two potential jurors are scheduled to gather for jury selection in Albany before Judge Gary Sharpe (See Profile), who presided over Bruno’s first trial in 2009 and sentenced him to two years in prison after he was convicted on two felony counts of theft of “honest services” mail fraud.
The conviction in United States v. Bruno, 1:09-cr-29, was thrown out after the U.S. Supreme Court retooled the legal standards behind the charge in Skilling v. United States, 130 U.S. 2896, in June 2010. On retrial, prosecutors will have to show evidence that Bruno received a kickback or bribe to convict him of either of the two counts of honest services fraud he faces under 18 U.S.C. §§1341 and 1346.
Prosecutors in the Northern District U.S. Attorney’s Office contend that Bruno received $240,000 between 2004 and 2006 from Jared Abbruzzese, a suburban Albany businessman and friend, plus $40,000 from Abbruzzese as payment for a horse that was close to worthless, according to testimony at Bruno’s first trial.
The payments were designed to buy influence from Bruno, who was leader of the Senate’s Republican majority from 1995 to 2008. In that position, Bruno enjoyed virtual veto power over any bills before the Senate and the power to funnel public funds to a variety of local projects, such as the nanoscience research center at the State University of New York at Albany.
Bruno insisted at his first trial—and continued to do so leading up to the second—that he earned the fees as a legitimate consultant to companies affiliated with Abbruzzese, and that his side work was cleared for conflicts of interest by Senate lawyers.
Bruno, 85, is being represented by two prominent Capital Region defense attorneys, E. Stewart Jones Jr. of Troy and William Dreyer of Dreyer Boyajian in Albany.
Abbe Lowell of Chadbourne & Parke, who defended Bruno during the first trial and on appeal, is not involved.
Jones said last week that Sharpe told him and the other attorneys not to discuss the case publicly.
In a brief interview, Jones acknowledged that Bruno remains a popular figure in the Albany area, and the prosecution led by Northern District U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian is unpopular among Bruno’s former constituents.
“He [Bruno] is 85 years of age,” Jones said. “He has multiple health issues. The question is, why we are doing it again? But we are.”
Bruno and Sharpe clashed during the first trial, likely spurred by Bruno’s near-daily comments to reporters in which he proclaimed his innocence and criticized the proceedings.
At one point, Sharpe’s irritation spilled over when he said, “Let me explain something to you once, Mr. Bruno, and I will not explain it again. For once in your life, you don’t control something—I do.”
During a pretrial hearing last week, Sharpe said he would shorten the daily sessions at Bruno’s request, if Bruno avoided speaking to reporters regularly outside the courtroom. The judge agreed to hold the trial between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. under that condition.
“The minute I see him out there at 9 o’clock or 5 o’clock conducting press conferences with the people in the back [of the courtroom] … I’m going back to a 9-to-5 schedule,” Sharpe warned Thursday.
Bruno, who had heart problems in the mid-2000s, said he had a third of a kidney removed last year due to cancer. He acknowledged in an interview with Albany television WNYT taped before the Thursday’s hearing that he was slowing down because of his age and illnesses.
But Bruno insisted that he did not commit any crimes and called his continuing prosecution “outrageous.”
“I am totally innocent of any charges,” he said. “What a lot of people miss is the New York State Legislature is a part-time job. I am a businessman by background. I had a perfect right to be in business, constantly.”
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elizabeth Coombe and William Pericak will again present the prosecution’s case. In their trial memorandum, Coombe and Pericak said they do not have to prove that Bruno executed a quid pro quo in exchange for the fees he received from Abbruzzese.
“The quid pro quo element is satisfied if the public official understood that as a result of the payment, he was expected to exercise particular kinds of influence on behalf of the payor as opportunities arose,” the prosecutors said.
Citing United States v. Rosen, 716 F.3d 691 (2nd Cir. 2013), the prosecutors said that “once the quid pro quo has been established, the specific transactions comprising the illegal scheme need not match up ‘this’ for ‘that.’”