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Bruno’s Pearl in Jack’s Oyster House: Albany Corruption At Pol Haunt

November 12, 2009

The GOP’s former bigwig Joe Bruno, once the State Senate’s divo-in-chief, is currently being tried for his alleged corrupt dealings. The Times has an interesting profile of the former Senator’s supposed activities at a local haunt for Albany politicians. The types of corruption alleged are very serious, and should be carefully considered by any current  GOP state senators and any prospective candidates seeking office in Albany. Such corruption has no place in our party.

Here is the story:

ALBANY — For decades, Jack’s Oyster House has been a favored haunt of the capital’s political elite, serving up healthy portions of gossip and deal-making along with its signature dish, sautéed calf’s liver.

But two weeks into the federal corruption trial of Joseph L. Bruno, Jack’s has achieved a less savory distinction. It was over lunch at Jack’s in January 1994 that Mr. Bruno, then a rising Republican member of the State Senate, was first introduced to Wright Investors’ Service, the investment firm that went on to pay him millions of dollars over the years to win business from union pension funds.

The deal between Wright Investors’ and Mr. Bruno, who became Senate majority leader in late 1994, is at the heart of the case against him. Prosecutors say Mr. Bruno improperly lobbied the unions for pension fund business during periods when the unions were lobbying him for earmarks and favorable legislation. A former Wright official, Robert T. Smith, described the lunch meeting in his testimony last week.

In an interview, Brad Rosenstein, grandson of the restaurant’s founder and namesake, was unfazed by the association. When a restaurant is popular among the political class, he said, it is bound to figure in the news.

“It’s part of the business,” Mr. Rosenstein said.

Of course Jack’s, with its cozy leather booths and old-school vibe, is more popular with politicians than most restaurants. (It is also convenient to the Capitol, which sits four blocks up State Street.) Since opening in 1913 at a different location, Jack’s has hosted every sitting governor for a meal.

“We have a special table in the back, very private, called the governor’s table,” Mr. Rosenstein noted.

Notoriety aside, Mr. Rosenstein said, the trial has had a silver lining. Since the federal courthouse where Mr. Bruno’s case is being heard is less than a block from Jack’s, the restaurant has been getting plenty of extra lunch business out of it.

“We’re seating at least four or five parties a day from the trial,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “It’s definitely active.”

Behind Closed Doors

It’s no surprise that the case has been generating a lot of foot traffic down State Street. For avid students of the notoriously secretive Legislature, the parade of witnesses taking the stand has provided an unintended and revealing civics lesson.

Take, for example, the Legislature’s habit of appropriating some $170 million annually in legislative earmark spending, known as member items.

In the Senate, as in the Assembly, the largest shares of this pork budget are awarded to the most senior members, like Mr. Bruno, who dole them out to nonprofit groups at home.

But it turns out that Mr. Bruno, who resigned from the Senate in 2008, might have doled out other people’s pork, too. In testimony on Tuesday, prosecutors asked Elizabeth O’C. Little, a Republican state senator whose upstate district abuts the one Mr. Bruno represented, how she became the named sponsor of two job-training grants to Local 773 of the Plumbers & Steamfitters Union, one of the many unions that invested pension money with Wright after being approached by Mr. Bruno.

Looking sheepish, Ms. Little confessed that she had no idea. In fact, she conceded, no one at the union had ever asked her for the two grants, which were for $100,000 in 2006 and $150,000 in 2007. Instead, aides to Mr. Bruno told her that the senator was interested in dispensing the grant and offered to bring her on as a co-sponsor.

Though a public disclosure form for the first grant is dated April 2006, the grant does not appear to have actually been executed until December — some months after Local 773 invested $4 million of pension money with Wright. And though Mr. Bruno and Ms. Little were both listed as sponsors of the grant, only Ms. Little signed the disclosure form.

Ms. Little was asked when, exactly, she signed it. “I don’t know,” she said.

Do you know if it was backdated? “No, I don’t,” she replied.

And why didn’t Mr. Bruno sign it? “I don’t know,” she repeated.

Meanwhile, testimony from Edward M. Bartholomew Jr., a Senate Republican lawyer who handled labor issues under Mr. Bruno, offered a rare view into the inner workings of the Senate staff — and, possibly, into the interconnections between Mr. Bruno’s public and private business.

Mr. Bartholomew described a lunch meeting he had with Kenneth H. Singer, a Wright executive, in December 2005. Mr. Singer, Mr. Bartholomew said, told him that Mr. Bruno was working with Wright and peppered him with questions about unions he had dealt with in his official work for the Senate, emphasizing the unions’ pension funds.

“I really wasn’t sure what his objectives were,” Mr. Bartholomew said. He added that he felt “uncomfortable and uneasy” over the questions.

Within days, Mr. Singer had e-mailed Mr. Bartholomew a detailed memo asking him to set up meetings with about a dozen union leaders. When Mr. Bartholomew did not return the e-mail message, he testified, Mr. Bruno’s secretary called to remind him to follow up.

After he refused to do so, Mr. Bartholomew said, another Senate lawyer said he would handle the matter.

Defending Himself

Though it is not yet clear whether Mr. Bruno will take to the stand to defend himself, he has not been shy about taking to the airwaves.

On Wednesday — with his trial on hiatus thanks to Veterans Day — Mr. Bruno made a surprise phone call to an Albany talk radio show. He reiterated that he was innocent of the charges against him. He also claimed that the government had spent millions of dollars and assigned dozens of federal agents in what he characterized as an overzealous effort to bring him to trial.

“I wasn’t a terrorist,” Mr. Bruno said on Talk 1300 WGDJ-AM. “I wasn’t being accused of things like that. I never abused a public trust that people put in me. I never, ever used politics to make money.”

How prosecutors view Mr. Bruno’s claims is hard to know — the judge has ordered both sides not to speak about the case outside of court.

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