ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The former leader of the New York state Senate was acquitted Friday of federal fraud charges, ending a nearly nine-year corruption investigation after four hours of jury deliberations.
Retired Sen. Joe Bruno, 85, quietly thanked his lawyers, family and friends, who surrounded him with hugs and handshakes. When the verdicts were read, their initial claps and cheers caused Judge Gary Sharpe to ask for decorum.
"I cannot describe to anybody what it feels like to have the government, the federal government, day and night on your mind, that their mission is to put you in prison," Bruno said on the courthouse steps afterward. "But the system works, and I can't fault them for being conscientious and doing what they were doing. I really thought it was overdone."
The Rensselaer County Republican led the Senate's majority for 14 years before stepping down in 2008. He was first tried for fraud in 2009, accused of using his position to get rich and depriving New Yorkers of his honest services. He was acquitted of five charges and convicted of two, which were overturned on appeal based on case law that they had to prove actual bribery or kickbacks.
Prosecutors refiled those two charges, leading to the latest trial.
Bruno said Friday he was grateful for the public support he has received. As he walked from the federal courthouse to lunch at nearly Jack's Oyster House, a longtime haunt of state lawmakers in downtown Albany, passers-by wished him well.
"Let's not lose sight of the fact we're in the ninth year of this case, and so it's a great relief to the senator, but also to be pointed out that the jury made a very quick return," defense attorney William Dreyer said. "I think they were unanimous from the beginning, they had to have complete agreement on the proof they heard."
U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian said it wasn't the outcome they'd hoped for, but prosecutors believe justice was served, and they won't shy from bringing future cases. He noted that two grand juries brought indictments against Bruno, while judges and appeals courts rejected defense attempts to throw out the case.
"Public corruption is a priority for our office," Hartunian said. "We'll certainly work in that area."
In closing statements, prosecutors and defense attorneys had accused each other of using half-truths and misrepresenting the testimony about Bruno and his dealings with businessman Jared Abbruzzese.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe argued that Bruno did no actual work for bribes disguised as consulting payments while directing state grants of $250,000 and $1.5 million to Evident Technologies, one of Abbruzzese's technology companies. Bruno also helped the businessman in his attempt take over the New York Racing Association by naming his partner to the board, she said.
Bruno didn't testify. He has insisted he simply had outside work like most of New York's part-time legislators.
In closing arguments Thursday, defense attorney E. Stewart Jones emphasized that Abbruzzese, shielded from prosecution for anything except perjury, testified that he "absolutely" never bribed Bruno or intended to. Consulting arrangements aren't unusual in business, and the only person who can decide if it's an improper amount for the work done is the person paying, the lawyer said.
He said Abbruzzese only had a minor investment in Evident Technologies and that federal authorities never actually asked anyone direct questions about bribery and kickbacks before he did at trial. He also said the attempt to privatize NYRA was an effort to fix it in 2005 that came when the nonprofit state racing franchise was "a cesspool of corruption" under federal indictment and facing bankruptcy.
Before a group including Abbruzzese bid for the franchise, he and Bruno ended their joint horse venture, Jones said.
Sharpe told the jury that to convict Bruno they had to conclude there was bribery or a kickback, though specific payments for specific official actions didn't have to match up. He also said good faith on Bruno's part, with no scheme or intent to deny New Yorkers of his so-called honest services, was a valid defense.