Joseph L. Bruno, the longtime Majority Leader of the State Senate who played a key role in the passage of a Variable Supplements Fund bill for city correction officers, tangled with Gov. Eliot Spitzer and got the best of their battle, and was subsequently convicted of fraud charges in connection with illegal kickbacks but had the ruling overturned and was then acquitted during a second trial, died Oct. 6 at 91.
Mr. Bruno, who grew up in Glens Falls, after graduating from Skidmore College in nearby Saratoga Springs, served during the Korean War as an infantry Sergeant and won the light-heavyweight boxing title for the Army's 35th Regiment. He brought a fighter's pugnacity to his later work as a legislator, becoming known for his outspokenness while other major Albany players including Gov. George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—a sparring partner whose tenure in that job largely overlapped with his—did business in more below-the-radar fashion.
Mr. Bruno was famous for the amount of largesse he bestowed upon his Rensselaer County district, which also covered parts of Albany and Saratoga. During the thoroughbred-racing season each summer, he was a ubiquitous figure in the track clubhouse, which made him readily available to reporters, although that wasn't always to his advantage.
In 1997, a budget dispute pitting Mr. Pataki and Senate Republicans against Assembly Democrats led by Mr. Silver went way beyond the March 31 deadline and crept into late July, when Saratoga Racecourse opened for business. A Daily News reporter approached Mr. Bruno inside the track on Opening Day and asked how he could justify a day at the races when the budget was nearly four months overdue.
His response was characteristically blunt, telling her, "You know, you are a real pain in the ass." It was the only quote from him to appear in the next day's story.
Two years later, the track was one of the places where then-Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook—who brought most of his union's executive board with him—courted Mr. Bruno to secure his support for the VSF, a retirement benefit that until then was limited only to retired cops and firefighters, whose unions had obtained it 30 years earlier by allowing their pension funds to invest in the stock market.
'Wouldn't Have It Without Him'
Mr. Seabrook had nothing similar to trade, but alliances he had formed with Mr. Pataki and Mr. Silver, as well as Mr. Bruno opened the door for city correction officers of all ranks to gain the VSF later that year.
"I know without him we wouldn't have gotten the Variable Supplements," Sidney Schwartzbaum, who at the time was president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, said upon learning of Mr. Bruno's death the following evening. "Norman Seabrook was the one driving that train, but I met with Bruno a couple of times on it and he was receptive. I always found him to be a class act and a great asset to law-enforcement unions."
Mr. Bruno was first elected to the Senate in 1976 after nearly a decade of working with state Republicans, including a stint with then-Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea. He became Assistant Majority Leader in 1989, and five years later, when Mr. Pataki was running against Gov. Mario Cuomo, Mr. Bruno quickly supported him. The Majority Leader, Ralph Marino, seemed reluctant to buck Mr. Cuomo even though the Governor once cited their disagreements as a reason he couldn't join the 1992 race for President at the height of state budget talks.
Soon after Mr. Pataki's upset victory that November, the Governor-elect helped orchestrate a coup under which Mr. Marino, whose nickname was Mumbles, was ousted in favor of the more-voluble Mr. Bruno.
Clashed With Spitzer
When Mr. Pataki left at the end of 2006 after completing his third term as Governor, his successor, Eliot Spitzer, quickly clashed with Mr. Bruno, and tried to use State Police records to show the Majority Leader was traveling on state aircraft to conduct political business. An inquiry by then-State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, however, cleared Mr. Bruno of wrongdoing and faulted aides to Mr. Spitzer for pressuring top State Police officials to help them embarrass the Senate leader.
Mr. Spitzer resigned under duress in March 2008 when he was found to have paid thousands of dollars to high-priced hookers using wire transfers. Three months later, Mr. Bruno, who had been the subject of a lengthy Federal investigation, stepped down as Majority Leader and in July, as the racing season began, he left his Senate post as well.
He was subsequently indicted, and in December 2009 convicted in U.S. District Court in Albany of two counts of fraud for concealing $280,000 in payments from Jared Abbruzzese, in return for Mr. Bruno's helping his business enterprises. Mr. Bruno was sentenced to two years in prison, but while free on bail pending his appeal, his conviction was overturned late in 2011 by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan.
Mr. Seabrook appeared as a witness in that case concerning charges of which Mr. Bruno had been acquitted: that as Majority Leader he had improperly received nearly $1.4 million in referral fees from Wright Investors' Service for persuading unions—which also included the Correction Captains Association, the Detectives' Endowment Association and the Sergeants Benevolent Association, to invest with the firm. The then-COBA president testified that he had been unaware Mr. Bruno had a financial relationship with the firm at the time he placed union investments with it in February 1999, less than a year before the VSF bill was approved with his support and signed into law by Mr. Pataki.
Acquitted in 2nd Trial
A new indictment was brought against Mr. Bruno in May 2012 in connection with his dealings with Mr. Abbruzzese, but this time he was acquitted in Federal Court in Albany two years later. Exiting the courthouse, Mr. Bruno, who at 85 remained impeccably coiffed, told reporters, "The system, it works. Sometimes it's slow, but it works."
The investment firm for which Mr. Bruno allegedly made referrals surfaced again last year during the criminal trial in which Mr. Seabrook was convicted of taking a $60,000 bribe to steer $20 million in COBA assets over a six-month period in 2014 to a hedge fund that subsequently filed for bankruptcy.
Ironically, most of the initial $10-million investment in Platinum Partners that Mr. Seabrook persuaded union board members to approve had previously been placed with Wright Investors' Service. While the union leader told board members that recent returns on its investments with Wright had been disappointing and touted the spectacular profits he said Platinum Partners had produced, the latter firm had benefited greatly from a stock-market boom the previous decade and fallen off after the 2008 financial meltdown. It was established by Federal prosecutors during the trial that during 2013, the last year COBA invested through Wright, that firm produced a better return to its clients than Platinum Partners had.
Mr. Bruno, whose wife of 57 years, Barbara, died in 2008, is survived by his longtime partner, Kay Thompson, and his children Joseph, Susan, Kenneth and Catherine. His name also lives on in the numerous buildings in the Albany/Rensselaer area named for him, among them Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, widely known as The Joe.
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