By Michael Virtanen
Sunday, November 1, 2009
ALBANY, N.Y. -- For more than a decade, state Senate Republican leader Joseph L. Bruno was a top power broker in New York. The backslapping ex-boxer 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.
Federal prosecutors accuse Bruno 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 is expected to last weeks.
The charges against Bruno, 80, 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 G. Hevesi -- reelected while under indictment -- was convicted of using state workers to chauffeur his wife in 2006. This year, former health commissioner Antonia Novello, once the U.S. surgeon general, was convicted of using state workers to help her with shopping and other personal business.
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.
Norden said he expects the trial to 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.
Bruno, who grabbed the New York Senate Republican majority's leadership post in a 1994 overthrow, doggedly courted high-tech projects for New York, often in his district. But in many ways, he was an old-time pol, a guy who used phrases like "a man's man," occasionally cursed in news conferences, paused to chat with young female reporters and interns, and seethed when he felt a handshake deal was broken.
Bruno resigned in the summer of 2008, only months after Democratic Gov. Eliot L. 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 last week.
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 allege 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.
-- Associated Press