Former New York State Senator Joseph Bruno, right, and one of his attorneys, E. Stewart Jones, arrive at federal court on Monday for the opening of the government’s retrial of Bruno. (AP/Mike Groll)
ALBANY – Federal charges that Joseph Bruno took bribes from a businessman while serving as majority leader of the New York State Senate are “hogwash” and “ridiculous,” his attorney said Monday in opening statements of Bruno’s retrial.
There is “not one iota of evidence” to support prosecutors’ theory that Bruno collected $240,000 from 2004 to 2006 in exchange for doing businessman Jared Abbruzzese’s bidding at the Capital, attorney William Dreyer told the newly seated jury in a Northern District courtroom.
“This is a case made of whole cloth by the government,” said Dreyer, who is being aided by attorney E. Stewart Jones in defending the 85-year-old Bruno in United States v. Bruno, 1:09-cr-29. Bruno faces two counts of honest services fraud under 18 U.S.C. §§1341 and 1346.
Northern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe told jurors earlier that the prosecution would show Abbruzzese had struck a deal with Bruno while the two were on a trip to Florida in 2004 under which the Republican legislator from Rensselaer County would work as a $20,000-a-month consultant for Abbruzzese’s company, Niskayuna Development.
In return, Coombe said hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid that previously had been held up in Albany was released to Evident Technologies, a high-tech firm in which Abbruzzese’s Niskayuna Development owned an 8 percent share.
Coombe said Bruno also attempted to exercise influence on behalf of his friend in the mid-2000s when an investment group to which Abbruzzese belonged, Empire Racing, attempted to wrest control of New York’s thoroughbred tracks away from the New York Racing Association.
Bruno has argued that his business associations with Abbruzzese were legitimate, and that a state lawmaker is a part-time employee who may legally seek income opportunities outside the Legislature.
“A part-time legislator may not accept money for official actions,” Coombe told jurors. “That is illegal.”
Dreyer said the prosecution’s opening statement put words in Abbruzzese’s mouth. “He’s going to tell you it [the bribery scheme] never happened,” said Dreyer, of Dreyer Boyajian in Albany. He said the state grant money for Evident Technologies was in the works well before Bruno and Abbruzzese agreed on their consulting arrangement.
As to the alleged attempt by Abbruzzese to gain a leg-up in the jockeying to replace NYRA, Dreyer contended that Abbruzzese was only a small player in maneuvering that involved Churchill Downs, Delaware North, Magna Entertainment, George Steinbrenner and others with far more money than Abbruzzese had.
“How ridiculous,” Dreyer said of the prosecution’s theory that one Bruno appointment to the 35-member state Racing and Wagering Board could influence the board’s decision to strip the thoroughbred contract from NYRA and give it to Empire Racing.
NYRA ultimately retained the contract to run Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont, but it had to cede title to the tracks themselves to the state.
Dreyer also dismissed the prosecution’s claim that part of the bribe came in the form of a $40,000 check from Abbruzzese to buy a horse from Bruno that was allegedly worthless.
Citing the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, Dreyer argued that a young horse that appears to be worthless at age 1 or 2 can turn into a valuable animal. “Nobody knows,” he said.
Northern District Judge Gary Sharpe (See Profile), who presided over Bruno’s first trial, dismissed the jury after the opening arguments and ordered the nine-female, three-male panel to report for the start of testimony on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
Under an agreement sought by Bruno, Sharpe has agreed to conduct this trial between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. instead his trial hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sharpe said he would stick to a shortened schedule as long as Bruno refrains from speaking to reporters at the beginning and end of the sessions, as he did during his 2009 trial.
Bruno told reporters both entering and leaving the courthouse Monday that he was “tired” but did not criticize the government for prosecuting him.
He has fought heart troubles and cancer.
Bruno was convicted of two felony counts of theft of “honest services” mail fraud in 2009 and sentenced to two years in prison.
The conviction was thrown out after the U.S. Supreme Court retooled the legal standards behind the honest services theft charge in Skilling v. United States, 130 U.S. 2896, in June 2010.
Coombe told the jury that prosecutors will show that Bruno did receive a “quid pro quo” for his services on behalf of Abbruzzese in the form of the money on the horse sale and the $20,000-a-month fee for what she called Bruno’s “no show” consulting job.
Bruno did not testify at his first trial, and there was no indication whether he would take the stand this time.
Dreyer did say that former Gov. George Pataki might be called to explain how a $2.5 million state grant to Russell Sage College in Troy to provide laboratory space for Evident Technologies predated the Bruno-Abbruzzese consulting arrangement.