Bruno’s role in grants eyed
Prosecutors: Bribes led to state funding for pair of projects
ALBANY How a promising startup technology company landed a state grant and state-funded new lab space was at the center of testimony Friday at Joe Bruno’s federal corruption trial.
Evident Technologies of Troy secured a $1.5 million state grant in 2002, and Russell Sage College then got $2.5 million in state funds in 2005 to provide new incubator laboratory space to the company, which remains at the college today.
Federal prosecutors contend both grants came about because Evident investor Jared Abbruzzese was buying the influence of the powerful former state Senate Republican majority leader through a series of $20,000-per-month consulting contracts.
While the grant was announced in 2002 as being for $1.5 million, Evident only received $500,000, in two separate $250,000 payments that required Bruno’s authorization. The company was located in his Senate district, which included Rensselaer and part of Saratoga counties.
The second payment was received by Evident just five days after Bruno signed the first $20,000-per-month contract to consult for Abbruzzese in February 2004.
At the time, Evident was pushing hard to get the second payment, calling its Senate staff contact, Mary Louise Mallick, frequently.
“[Evident President Clint Ballinger] was rather impatient, and I thought it was a good idea, so I went ahead and called the senator and asked if it was OK to send the money,” testified Mallick, secretary to the Senate Finance Committee. “He asked a lot of questions and then said, ‘Go ahead.’ ”
Also testifying Friday was Ballinger, who called Abbruzzese Evident’s first investor and a major supporter. He was “our biggest cheerleader. He was out raising money for us from state government, the federal government, any way he could,” Ballinger said.
Ballinger said he talked to Mallick while pushing for grant payments to be delivered and didn’t deal directly with Bruno.
Ballinger said the 2005 deal for Russell Sage to receive $2.5 million in state money to establish a science business incubator that would house Evident was negotiated by Chet Opalka of Albany Molecular Research, who was on the Sage Board of Trustees, not by Abbruzzese.
The company needed lab space on short notice after the roof at the building it leased in Watervliet began to leak.
“The Russell Sage new incubator didn’t really have anything to do with [Abbruzzese],” Ballinger said.
Prosecutors point to emails between Evident and Sage officials during that time that refer to seeking money from Bruno for the project.
Ballinger said he had “no idea” that Abbruzzese had been paying Bruno during 2004 and 2005.
Outside court during the lunch break, Bruno said he is proud of using his office to help companies like Evident, which continues to develop military, medical and energy-generation applications for its nanotechnology.
“I’m proud of my record of job creation and nanotechnology,” Bruno told reporters.
Tom Keane, former chairman of the chemistry department at Russell Sage, said the college is happy with hosting Evident, which has allowed students to do internships and research projects that have enhanced the college’s science reputation.
Abbruzzese, a key prosecution witness despite sparring often with Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak, concluded his second day of testimony early on Friday.
Abbruzzese said he never told Bruno that he was entitled to buy stock options in Evident, called warrants, as installments of the state grant were received.
“I can’t imagine how he would know about those warrants,” Abbruzzese said.
During part of the time Bruno was a consultant, Abbruzzese paid Bruno through a satellite communications company, Motient Corp. Asked by prosecutors what Bruno did in return for the $120,000 paid over those months, he said Bruno’s presence gave him stature with federal communications regulators — but the only specific he cited was having Bruno attend and speak at a Republican National Committee fundraiser in New York City, which he said raised $250,000 to $300,000.
“At the time, Motient had multiple things going on in Washington, D.C. It was a Republican administration,” Abbruzzese said.
The businessman also testified that he felt a “moral obligation” to pay Bruno $80,000 to buy a horse and end a horse breeding partnership after Bruno’s final consulting contract was ended four months early in the summer of 2005.
Abbruzzese said he was trying to “disentangle myself” from the business relationship with the senator because he planned to join those pursuing the state racing franchise. His group, Empire Racing, was ultimately unsuccessful, as the New York Racing Association retained the franchise.
Bruno, 85, of Brunswick, is being retried on two counts of honest services fraud, allegations that he deprived New Yorkers of his honest services as an elected official by taking bribes or kickbacks from Abbruzzese. He resigned from office in 2008 while under FBI investigation.
Bruno has pleaded innocent, and on Thursday, Abbruzzese denied the payments were bribes.
Trial testimony will resume at 10 a.m. Monday in U.S. District Court, with Mallick to be questioned by Bruno’s attorneys. The trial is expected to last until late next week.
Bruno is being retried on the two charges after his convictions in a 2009 trial were overturned on appeal.