By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Last week, the Voice cast a skeptical eye on the scandal that has kept New York insiders swooning for months. Call it Troopergate or Choppergate, the focus has been on Governor Eliot Spitzer and his aides, whose attempt to spotlight the questionable use of helicopters by Republican senate leader Joe Bruno backfired on them. It is no small irony that Bruno, who at a robust 78 is a force in the life of every New Yorker, has largely escaped scrutiny in the media circus.
Most city residents barely know who this 15-term state senator from rural Rensselaer and Saratoga counties is, though he makes decisions that shape our lives. It was, for example, his Republican majorityfueled by millions in landlord contributionsthat gutted the rent-stabilization laws, raising the rents that many of us pay. He is also the reason that city kids get far less than their share of state school aid, that gays can't get married, and that fat cats are allowed to make virtually unlimited contributions to state pols.
When Governor Spitzer announced recently that he was loosening the requirements for drivers' licenses for immigrants, Bruno initially said that he could "understand the merits" of the proposal, but within 24 head-spinning hours, he was suddenly denouncing it as invitation to let Osama bin Laden himself ride down Broadway.
As often as Bruno impacts our lives, we are rarely offered a glimpse of his world, which is crowded with donors and lobbyists, and are only vaguely aware of the facts surrounding the year-old federal probe of his business dealings. His son became a $50,000-a-month lobbyist whose clients prospered in the senate. His brother took a $127,500 post in the Pataki administration and got his state agency to pay $54,400 a year to the local Republican Party boss to rent an unnecessary office just a stone's throw from his house.
The senator, meanwhile, set up a consulting business in his sprawling farmhouseand even though he neither advertised the firm nor even listed it in the phone book, clients rushed to his door. He still won't say who those clients are, just as he won't say whom he visited on his much-publicized recent trips to the city aboard state aircraft. But the names of a few of those clients have leaked out in occasional news coverage of the FBI probe, including a businessman he steered a half-million-dollar state grant to, and an investment firm that handled the millions he's raised for the senate campaign committee. In real-estate ventures unconnected to the consulting company, Bruno partnered up with two Albany lobbyists in one and purchased property from a state contractor in another. The lobbyists, of course, lived at the senate trough, and an investor in the second dealpersonally recruited by Bruno to bail another son out of the dealgot two state grants with the senator's help.
Incredibly, these schemes and conflicts have all been one-day stories, disappearing from view as swiftly as a state helicopter leaving the West Side heliport.
Bruno describes himself as a successful businessman, but his telephone-equipment company was in fact "steadily losing money," as The New York Times put it, when he sold it in 1990, limiting his profit on the sale to a paltry $400,000. That hasn't stopped him from claiming that his public service "has cost me a fortunemillions, literally millions." He has found ways, like the consulting and real-estate deals that the FBI has been investigating for a year, to try to even the score. Even Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's report on the Choppergate affairwhich, as we reported last week, went so easy on Brunofound that state business sometimes constituted only a "minor" part of the rationale for some of Bruno's taxpayer-financed soirees. He makes no real attempt to separate the public from the political or the personal; it may all be a big blur to him.
While it's common for elected officials to dip into their campaign committees for an occasional personal meal or other perk, the filings for Bruno's three committees suggest that he may never pick up his own tab. In 2006 and the first six months of 2007, the committees have spent more than $92,000 on restaurant and country-club bills for "meetings" or "meals," not including any expenses that are listed for "fundraising" purposes. Calls to some of the restaurants confirm that Bruno eats there regularly, often with guests. It's not at all uncommon for multiple meals to be billed for the same day, or for the committee to cover virtually an entire week of dinners (including the weekend), usually in restaurants near the capitol and his home. It is possible that some of these meals are for staff, but one committee has no full-time staff, and it's the one with $38,000 in restaurant billings alone.
In addition, the committees have spent an astounding $18,225 at the track, including expenses virtually every other day during the 36-day summer season at Saratoga, where horseman Bruno reigns as a local potentate. He also appears to take at least a yearly "fundraising" junket to Florida, where he has spent $55,000 in the last year and a halffar more than he's ever raised there.