Business Associate: I Hired Bruno for His Contacts

What the Bruno trial tells us about Albany

Friday, Nov 20, 2009  |  Updated 1:30 PM EDT
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Business Associate: I Hired Bruno for His Contacts

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Then-Senate Majority Leader Senator Joseph L. Bruno is seen at a news conference in this file photo from last March.

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A business associate and friend of former New York Senate leader Joseph Bruno says he hired the longtime Republican lawmaker as a consultant for his contacts and the credibility Bruno lent to the enterprises.

     In testimony Friday at Bruno's federal corruption trial, Jared Abbruzzese says Bruno first approached him about consulting while flying home from West Palm Beach, Fla., following a golf weekend in 2004.
    
Abbruzzese, an investor in technology companies, says Bruno was paid $20,000 a month for almost two years. He later agreed to pay Bruno $80,000 for an undersized racehorse when the consultancy ended early.
    
Bruno was indicted on eight counts and faces up to 20 years behind bars if convicted. He's accused of using his state influence to enrich himself and deny New Yorkers his honest services.

And if there's anything to be learned from his trial, it's that things need to change in Albany.

Bruno ran the Senate chamber like a business – and he ran his private business within it, according to The New York Times. His longtime secretary spent her nights and weekends managing the powerful politician's private business, and lawyers who worked for the state Senate in the decade and a half that Bruno ran the show drew up his business agreements and gave professional advice to his clients.

While Bruno's defense has yet to make its case, he's maintained that his behavior in the state Capitol was the norm for lawmakers. His lawyer, Abbe David Lowell, told the 12 jurors and four alternates that the government touches virtually every facet of business and it would be "impossible" to avoid those circumstances.

"He was hired to make connections and open doors. This was perfectly allowed. That's all Mr. Bruno did," Lowell said. "Maybe the law should be changed, but that's legal in New York, he said.

Besides, lawmakers only serve part-time in an official capacity and have to find other ways to make ends meet, Bruno says.

"It's a citizen Legislature, and that's what the public has to remember and I think will remember," Bruno said outside court on Tuesday, reports the Times. "We broke no laws, and that's what's important."

Ethics are important, too, aren't they? And the culture of Albany – and the manner in which lawmakers operate within it -- is as much on trial as Bruno.

Bruno's lawyer claims his alleged ethical infractions could not have happened if it were not for former lawmakers George Pataki and Thomas DiNapoli, who penned the ethics clearance 16 years ago that paved the way for him to be a paid consultant in addition to holding public office, according to the Albany Times Union.

Aides to Pataki and DiNapoli say neither recalls the ruling, but it has become the cornerstone for Bruno's argument that he was given the green light to hold a consulting job that ended up netting him hundreds of thousands of dollars from two different businesses.

Bruno's lawyer, Abbe David Lowell, brought up the ruling, which was the result of a request for an ethics opinion from Bruno's Senate legal team, in court earlier this week, reports the Times Union.

Their opinion found "no substantial conflict of interest" in Bruno becoming a paid representative for an investment banking firm in Albany.

"We trust that the member will keep his role as a representative of the private corporation separate and distinct from his role as a public official when acting on behalf of the private corporation," the opinion read.

But trust has become the virtual antithesis of Albany politics, which have fallen under fire for lax ethics enforcement as of late. Even when given the opportunity to pass an ethics reform bill, the Senate failed, having just returned from a month and a half of legislative gridlock – the product of a few lawmakers' dramatic grabs for power.

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