After all that, Joe Bruno, and ‘this system,’ are off the hook

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ALBANY—State lawmakers, exhale: Joe Bruno, and the system as you know it, has been acquitted.

Jurors took only four hours to determine that the 85-year-old former Senate Republican leader from suburban Troy acted legally when he accepted a $20,000-a-month consulting contract from Jerry Abbruzzese, a telecomm consultant and horseman who, prosecutors said, was simply buying favor.

Bruno was at the height of his considerable powers at the time, and Abbruzzese was hoping to cash in on the potential privatization of New York's horse tracks, pushing for state grants to companies in which he had an interest.

Prosecutors said this was “a quid pro quo bribery scheme,” and outlined a damning timeline: The consulting agreement was signed 11 days after Bruno's pitch—which happened during a lull in the poker game on the private jet ferrying Bruno and Abbruzzese back from a Florida golf trip—and in the interim, $250,000 in state money was authorized to the company Abbruzzese helped form, letting him exercise stock warrants.

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(The $10,000-a-head political fund-raiser that later occurred at Abbruzzese's home was outside the scope of the indictment, because it's okey-dokey under New York's campaign finance laws.)

Abbruzzese, who in court was presented as a “socially deficient” boor by his own business associates, testified that being in the aura of the leader widely known as "Uncle Joe" gave him entree and a sounding board that was worth every penny he paid.

When asked by defense attorney E. Stewart Jones whether he ever bribed Bruno, or mentioned any state favors, Abbruzzese offered two dozen unequivocal nos before walking out of court, kissing Bruno's lady friend, Kay Stafford, on the cheek as he passed her in the aisle.

After a two-week trial, jurors ruled that these correlations, while stinky, are not illegal.

It didn't matter that there was no written work product from Bruno, or that people at the companies where he was a consultant didn't know exactly he did.

The graft, in this case, was honest.

Bruno's win has major implications for the dozens of other state lawmakers who hold outside jobs and have recently found themselves in investigators' cross-hairs.

The now-defunct Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption subpoenaed 30 businesses that employ state lawmakers, saying there is a “risk of criminal behavior” that warranted a closer look.

Legislators fought tooth and nail, noting that New York law allows for a part-time Legislature where outside jobs bring diversity and experience. Governor Andrew Cuomo surrendered the commission—and its subpoenas—after lawmakers agreed to greater enforcement at the board of elections and changes to bribery laws.

Moreland was born out of the indictment of Senators Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, the arrest of Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and prompt resignation of Assemblyman Nelson Castro, who wore a wire around town for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor based in Manhattan.

Bharara criticized Cuomo's decision and then picked up Moreland's mantle. His next steps are uncertain.

All of these recent arrests and convictions have included gloriously damning wiretaps, including one of Tony Seminerio, who once declared: “I was doing favors for these sons-of-bitches there, you know, they were—they were making thousands. ‘Screw you, from now on, you know, I’m a consultant.’ ”

Prosecutors had no such smoking-gun comments from Bruno; his arrangement was tacit. It did not cross the line, at least in the jury's eyes.

In a culture in which it can almost seem eccentric not to be "of counsel" to a major law firm that represents clients with state business, say, or to have a beef with the practice of steering pork, tax breaks or other public benefit to political donors, this sets significant precedent. 

Bruno has always pointed to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from the Lower East Side, in this regard.

Silver is paid $350,000 to be of counsel to a major plaintiffs' firm, Weitz & Luxenberg. A Silver spokesman says he handles personal injury cases and his work has nothing to do with state business, but critics have long noted that tort-reform measures that might impact the firm's business have a tendency to die in the Assembly.

Silver declined to comment on the Bruno verdict, but his spokesman said there is “zero” connection between his position and the money he gets from Weitz & Luxenberg.

“The reason why tort reform hasn't moved forward is that we don't think it's the right policy to further burden injured workers," said the spokesman Michael Whyland. "Period.”

It's hard to see it as anything other than a victory for the status quo.

“This case is unusual because an appellate court's already looked at this evidence [and] said, you look at the timing of these payments and agreements and that's sufficient to find bribery if a jury wants to,” said Paul DerOhannesian, a defense attorney who watched much of the trial.

Common Cause executive director Susan Lerner said that “any rational person doesn't believe these things happen in isolation,” and said there are “inherent conflicts of interest, either in campaign contributions and taking other money from entities who want something from state government.”

U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian, who is based in Albany, defended the case and vowed to bring more cases as necessary.

“To those supporters of Mr. Bruno who believe this case should not have been brought because of his popularity, his age, his health challenges, or how many public tax dollars he steered to our area for airports and train stations and baseball stadiums, you should understand that prosecutors must base their charging decisions on the facts and the law,” he said at a press conference. “Federal prosecutors do not shy away from difficult cases, especially those involving conduct of public officials who intertwine their public and private affairs, and we will continue to investigate such conduct and prosecute those case when the evidence warrants.”

After the jury delivered its verdict, Bruno strolled to his regular lunch at Jack's Oyster House, the iconic State Street eatery where lobbyists cut deals over lunch and top lawmakers recess after a day's work.

Former Albany mayor Jerry Jennings came over to wish Bruno well.

New York Post columnist Fred Dicker smiled as he spread the news of Joe's acquittal by phone, walking with the senator's entourage.

Kay Stafford, the widow of Senator Ron Stafford, beamed and put her head on Bruno's shoulder as he told reporters of his relief. He said that most days, people would shout their support in his daily lunch walks to Jack's, and he told of countless conversations and notes of affection over the past six years.

“That makes me feel good about the 42 years that I was in elected office," he said, on the courthouse steps. "That makes me feel great about all of the good things we did here, not just upstate but in the whole state. Because I dedicated my life primarily to public service. … I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you.

“I served in Korea and I went there before the war ended. Friends of mine were killed there, and we were fighting for freedom. They gave their lives for freedom, and freedom means what just happened here. It's a long, tortuous road, but I think democracy—as Winston Churchill said—is the worst form of government except for all the rest. This system, it works.”