ALBANY The retired state Sen. Joseph Bruno, who was one of New York’s most powerful politicians, faces only two fraud charges in his second scheduled trial, but a federal judge is expecting another weeks-long proceeding.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and defense lawyers have been wrangling over a questionnaire aimed at expeditiously weeding out potential jurors who may have bias about Bruno. The 83-year-old Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, was Senate majority leader for 13 years until stepping down in 2008, six months before he was indicted.
“I think I should tell that jury they should anticipate two to three weeks,” U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe told both sides at a conference last week in his chambers.
A jury acquitted Bruno in 2009 of five counts of “honest services fraud,” accused of improperly using his office to enrich himself and denying constituents his honest services, and deadlocked on a sixth count. An appeals court overturned his two convictions, based on a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, saying prosecutors must prove direct bribes or kickbacks under the federal statute.
His lawyers have challenged this year’s new indictment on those two charges, arguing it presents a bribery theory prosecutors abandoned at the first trial and violates his constitutional rights. Prosecutors responded that the first two convictions were dismissed because of jury instructions about what to consider, arguing this is not a case of unconstitutional double jeopardy.
“Where there has been a reversal of a conviction because of a defective legal theory, double jeopardy does not bar retrial on the correct theory,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe wrote.
Although the dismissal motion is still pending, Sharpe last week guided discussion on preparations for the new trial scheduled to start Feb. 4, including content of the questionnaire to go to potential jurors in the greater Albany area.
One question Sharpe approved is whether they, close friends or family ever directly sought assistance from Bruno.
Bruno’s mark is on public works projects like the baseball stadium on the Hudson Valley Community College campus in nearby Troy, also home to a minor league professional team. He championed state financial support for the GlobalFoundries project, a $4.6 billion chip-manufacturing plant built 20 miles north of Albany that employs more than 1,000 people.
Defense lawyers objected to a question prosecutors wanted to include about whether potential jurors had ever contributed to Bruno’s legal defense fund. Attorney William Dreyer said the fund was limited, with only Bruno’s friends contributing, and a prosecution attempt to call attention to his legal fees. Attorney E. Stewart Jones Jr. said the question was prejudicial.
“There’s been lots of press,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe said. “I think we should expect they have heard about it.”
Bruno’s legal fees from the first trial were estimated at $2.5 million.
Sharpe agreed to strike the question, noting other questions will elicit that information. He has imposed a gag order on the lawyers, saying he won’t have this case tried in the press, similar to restrictions he imposed the first time. Bruno himself talked to a phalanx of reporters daily during breaks in his first trial, arguing that, like nearly every other part-time state lawmaker in New York, he maintained outside business interests and did nothing wrong. He had a sideline consulting business.
According to the superseding indictment, prosecutors alleged that businessman Jared Abbruzzese and his companies paid Bruno $360,000 of consulting fees in 2004 and 2005 and that Abbruzzese gave him the equivalent of $80,000 for a worthless racehorse. They say Bruno in return took several steps in his Senate position to benefit Abbruzzese, including directing a $250,000 grant to Evident Technologies, a company in which Abbruzzese was an investor, and a $2.5 million grant to the Sage Colleges that benefited Evident.
Abbruzzese, testifying with immunity from prosecution except perjury in the first trial, said he wanted Bruno for his contacts and got guidance in improving his skills dealing with people. Abbruzzese, whose main business was fixing troubled technology companies, said Bruno was paid $20,000 a month for 18 months, totaling $360,000.