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 majority—fueled by millions in landlord contributions—that 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 farmhouse—and 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 deal—personally recruited by Bruno to bail another son out of the deal—got 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 fortune—millions, 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 affair—which, as we reported last week, went so easy on Bruno—found 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 half—far more than he’s ever raised there.
As extraordinary as these totals are, there’s also the $211,381 attributed on the Bruno filings to “Cardmember Services,” an affiliate of the World Perks Visa Card; $55,621 to “Commercial Card Solutions,” an affiliate of J.P. Morgan Chase; and $26,000 to a third credit-card company. These entities, which are cumulatively listed at five addresses on Bruno reports, “consolidate transactions” and “help manage travel and other miscellaneous expenses” for small businesses. In addition, the committees report $36,507 in “unitemized expenses,” often listed by the thousands at the end of a reporting period. The law requires that any expenditure over $50 be specified. Ironically, while two of the committees serve the senate majority, the third—which has spent $4.5 million since 2000—is in business purely to re-elect Bruno himself, in a district where he hasn’t faced a real opponent (and sometimes no Democrat at all) in a decade.
Asked to explain a detailed list of the credit-card payments, John McArdle, the senator’s spokesman, said that they had been itemized “elsewhere in the filings,” which is puzzling because it suggests that the same meal, for example, is listed twice—once as an itemized expense and again as part of a bulk payment. In any event, McArdle insists that the apparently personal use of the committees by Bruno is appropriate. “The expenditures that are listed on the Board of Elections report,” he said, “are for expenses that are used either for his election or for maintaining the majority in Albany, and are legitimate, and are within the boundaries established by the board.” Of course, the Board of Elections consists of four members nominated equally by the Republican and Democratic party chairs, with one actually appointed by Bruno, and, as such, it is constitutionally incapable of identifying violations of law. Even Bruno himself couldn’t get satisfaction from the board: Despite his screaming lately about what he says were the multimillion-dollar illegal loans that Spitzer’s father made to his 1994 and 1998 campaigns for attorney general, the board considered the matter and couldn’t muster the votes to find a violation.
The Albany Times Union reported in 2000 that Bruno’s committee had paid $4,200 for a pool cover, landscaping, and extermination services at his home, an expense that Bruno justified by saying that he used the A-frame behind his house for political meetings. “I spent money making it people-friendly and attractive,” said Bruno. McArdle added at the time: “Somebody like Senator Bruno, it’s difficult to say where he stops being majority leader.” The 2000 story also identified questionable restaurant and Florida expenses, which were then a fraction of what they are now.
The helicopter flights that have been the subject of so much controversy also highlight the indifference to the confluence of public, political, and personal interests in Bruno’s life. Aboard the state aircraft for one or more of these 2007 trips with Bruno were aides Ed Lurie, Kris Thompson, Steve Boggess, and Mike Avella. All of them are on the senate payroll—in jobs whose salaries go to $190,000. But all of them also wear political hats that make it impossible to decipher if they were on the choppers to go to the senator’s infrequent state meetings on those trips or to party fundraisers. Lurie is the executive director of the senate GOP campaign committee at the same time that he is director of the senate’s office of legislative services, making him the simultaneous dispenser of political and public largesse to members of Bruno’s majority conference. That makes it all the easier to use state discretionary grants—including millions in member items—to lure Democrats to switch to the GOP, a tactic that Bruno has used repeatedly even as he deplores Spitzer’s efforts to get Republican senators to do the same. Kris Thompson, the least prominent of the four, used to be a press aide to Bruno’s son when Ken Bruno was the local district attorney, and is reportedly a friend of the family’s.
Boggess is charged in a pending lawsuit—filed by Thomas Dadey Jr., an unsuccessful Republican senate candidate from Syracuse—with repeatedly threatening Dadey’s job if he persisted in running in a senate primary, asking if Dadey “knew what was at stake” and mentioning Dadey’s “responsibility to provide” for his two- and three-year-old daughters. Immediately after Dadey informed his employer—a state engineering contractor who makes regular contributions to the senate GOP—that he was staying in the race, he was fired. As secretary of the senate, Boggess has authorized the censoring of the newsletters of Democratic members, removing observations like “There’s a long way to go toward making the legislature a truly deliberative body.” Boggess prints Republicans newsletters on four-color, glossy stock and Democratic newsletters on two-color, plain stock.
The most political passenger, however, was Avella, who became the senate’s chief counsel early this year and interacted with Andrew Cuomo’s office throughout the recent investigation of the Bruno flights and the supposed Spitzer smear. Avella was the treasurer of the state GOP’s federal committee, which finances campaigns across the state for federal offices, when it was fined $128,000 by the Federal Elections Commission in 2000—the largest fine imposed on a state party in history. The FEC found that Avella and others “failed to report proper purposes for disbursement, failed to report the names of recipients and made cash payments over federal limits” totaling $82,500 to election-day workers. But being the named defendant for that committee’s violation was no bar to his becoming Bruno’s counsel. And neither, apparently, was his more recent DWI bust. Avella, chief counsel to a law-and-order GOP conference, had his driver’s license suspended from 2004 to 2005 after he rammed a vehicle slowing for a red light and pleaded guilty to a DWI charge.
Avella worked for the senate as a deputy counsel until he left to become a lobbyist a few years ago, working initially for the Pirro
Group, headed by Al Pirro, the notorious Westchester-based felon married to onetime district attorney Jeanine Pirro. He’s also worked with lobbyists Jeff Buley and David Dudley, big-time GOP operatives who were named with him in the FEC complaint against the federal committee. Until recently, Avella was married to Lisa Beth Elovich, the daughter of Larry Elovich, a Long Island attorney who was described by former U.S. senator and current GOP lobbyist Al D’Amato as “one of the closest friends I have in the world.” Bruno and Pataki rushed Lisa Elovich’s appointment to the state parole board through in the final days of Pataki’s term last year, and Bruno’s committee inexplicably paid her boxing company, Pugnacious Promotions, $7,800 in five separate payments since February 2006. The company is listed at a post-office-box number, and McArdle refused to explain what it does for the committee. Avella is such a political operative that he was paid $135,000 as a consultant to the state party in recent years, in addition to his role running the federal committee.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Troopergate is that it supposedly involves the abuse by Spitzer’s aides of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), which the Cuomo report called a “hallmark of good government” whose “integrity” must be protected. The Cuomo theory—partially rebutted in the more recent findings of the Albany district attorney—is that Spitzer’s aides violated that integrity when they supposedly told the state police they had a FOIL request before they actually got one, inducing them to turn over records on false pretenses. But, through all these months of controversy, no one has mentioned that Bruno, the self-described victim of this FOIL manipulation, essentially doesn’t believe in FOIL himself.
A Voice FOIL request for basic public records for this story was denied by Boggess immediately. When we appealed, it wound up with Avella, who never responded at all. The state’s public-access officer, Robert Freeman, says that the legislature passed a law exempting itself from many of the disclosure requirements that apply to other state agencies, but that the assembly then adopted the rules voluntarily, making it subject to the law. That left the senate, alone, as the last FOIL stonewall—so much so that when the senate Democrats wanted to do a comparison of their newsletters and Republican newsletters, Bruno refused to comply with their FOIL request, turning newsletters that are mass-mailed to the public into confidential documents unavailable to Democrats.
Similarly, Bruno claimed an absolute legislative privilege in a redistricting case in 2003, refusing to turn over virtually any records revealing how the new district lines were drawn. His privilege claims in that case—particularly as the senate investigations committee prepares to subpoena internal and even private e-mails from Spitzer aides—may become awkward in the coming weeks. A federal magistrate, Frank Maas, ruled against Bruno on his extreme claim, finding that only the “deliberations which took place after the proposed 2002 redistricting plan reached the Legislature’s floor” were privileged. Maas found that Bruno personally had so “insufficiently” described the documents he was listing on his “privilege log” that no one could “determine whether particular documents are privileged or not.” The judge also criticized Bruno’s lawyers for agreeing to a deposition of an expert witness and then canceling it “without consulting the Court,” just one of a variety of evasions employed by Bruno to cloak the discussions that framed the new districts.
The litigation was one more indicator of the secrecy that surrounds everything Bruno does, a shield penetrated momentarily by the Spitzer aide’s release of his travel itineraries. It was also the starkest revelation of how a party overwhelmed in statewide party registration manages to hold onto a legislative majority. In one-person/one-vote cases, federal courts have increasingly allowed some districts to be either 5 percent smaller or larger than the “ideally-sized district.” Bruno took such transparent advantage of this loophole that he managed, in the latest redistricting, to shrink the city’s representation and bolster the Republicans’ upstate base—even though 76 percent of the state’s one million new residents live in the city or its northern suburbs. Bruno did this by designating every downstate district as substantially overpopulated and every upstate one as underpopulated. This allowed him to use the 5 percent deviation in both directions, resulting in nearly a 10 percent difference in population between Republican-leaning upstate districts and Democratic-leaning downstate districts.
That’s why, to this day, the foundation of Bruno’s majority rests on blatantly undisguised discrimination.