Joseph L. Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican who rose from poverty to a pinnacle of power as the New York State Senate majority leader, but fell from grace when he spent a decade fighting corruptions charges of which he was ultimately acquitted, died late Tuesday at his home in Brunswick, N.Y. He was 91.
The death was confirmed Wednesday morning by Dena Ackerman, a spokeswoman for the family. Mr. Bruno had been treated for cancer in recent years.
A Korean War veteran, regimental boxer and millionaire businessman, Mr. Bruno was a state senator for nearly 32 years, from 1977 to 2008, and majority leader during his last 13 years in office. Near the end of his tenure, he doubled as acting lieutenant governor for three months after Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal and was succeeded by Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson.
With the governor and assembly speaker, Mr. Bruno was one of the “three men in a room,” Albany’s feudal triumvirate that controlled budgets and legislation. As majority leader, he kept senators in line by rewarding loyalists with leadership posts, stipends called “lulus” and “member items,” unregulated funds that they distributed to favored groups in their districts.
Mr. Bruno thrived in the often opaque world of state politics, squaring off with governors, including Mario M. Cuomo and George E. Pataki, and especially with Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Democratic-controlled Assembly. But he did not make his bones on landmark laws or government programs. His most notable legislation was a 1983 “lemon law,” protecting used-car buyers.
His legacy derived, rather, from his reputation as a champion of upstate New York, particularly the Albany area and his senate district, which runs north along the Hudson from the capital’s eastern suburbs, where he raised thoroughbred horses on a farm near Troy, through blue-collar Glens Falls, where he grew up. He helped steer $3 billion in state aid to the region, including capital financing and tax incentives for technology enterprises that created thousands of jobs.
Archly conservative, favoring the death penalty and opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, Mr. Bruno was ubiquitous to constituents, and not just at banquets, parades and community meetings. His bust adorned Albany International Airport. People flocked to Joseph L. Bruno Community Park in Hoosick Falls and attended games at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, known in Troy as The Joe. Little League teams, social service agencies, civic clubs and theaters benefited from his golden touch.
And, prosecutors said, so did Mr. Bruno himself.
Critics had complained for years that state legislators were unethically mixing official and personal business, and a federal inquiry found that Mr. Bruno, from 1993 to 2006, had reaped $3.2 million in fees by getting unions and others doing business with the state to invest pension and other funds in his private concerns.
Prosecutors did not call the payments bribes; they were “gifts,” they said, that Mr. Bruno was required to report to the state. By not doing so, they charged, he was depriving the people of his “honest services” under a federal law used to prosecute politicians and business executives. Mr. Bruno resigned his Senate seat in 2008 as the investigation closed in.
In December 2009, he was convicted in Albany federal court of two counts of fraud for concealing $280,000 in payments from Jared E. Abbruzzese, a capital-area entrepreneur who had sought his help for various ventures, including a nanotechnology company.
Mr. Bruno was acquitted on five other counts, and the jury could not reach a verdict on a sixth. Mr. Bruno, who did not testify but insisted that he had done nothing wrong, was sentenced to two years in prison. Pending an appeal, he remained free.
A month later, the United States Supreme Court, in an unrelated case, whittled down the law under which he was convicted, saying it could not be used to prosecute defendants for hiding conflicts of interest, although the court left open the possibility of cases based on kickbacks or bribery. Prosecutors conceded that Mr. Bruno’s conviction might not stand, but insisted that a retrial was justified, citing evidence that he took kickbacks.
Mr. Bruno’s lawyers appealed to overturn the conviction and bar any retrial. They said the original case had focused squarely on nondisclosure, as opposed to kickbacks or bribery. In November 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York overturned Mr. Bruno’s conviction but rejected his request to bar a retrial.
“The government’s evidence,” a three-judge panel said, “would permit a reasonable jury to find that Bruno performed virtually nonexistent consulting work for substantial payments” and “attempted to cover up” his dealings.
Prosecutors in Albany obtained a new indictment in May 2012, accusing Mr. Bruno of taking $440,000 in bribes and kickbacks disguised as $360,000 in consulting fees, and $80,000 for a worthless racehorse. The indictment said the payments had been made by Mr. Abbruzzese in return for legislative favors and for Mr. Bruno’s influence in directing large sums of public money to organizations connected to Mr. Abbruzzese.
Mr. Bruno pleaded not guilty and was released in his own recognizance. His lawyers contended that a new trial would constitute double jeopardy, but the Second Circuit appeals court rejected that claim in August 2013, clearing the way for a new trial.
In May 2014, a federal court in Albany found him not guilty of fraud charges, ending a legal battle nearly a decade in the making. “This system, it works; sometimes it’s slow, but it works,” Mr. Bruno said on the courthouse steps. “It is over.”
Joseph Louis Bruno was born on April 8, 1929, in Glens Falls, one of eight children of Vitaliano and Catherine (Ricciardelli) Bruno. His father was an Italian immigrant laborer who never learned to read English. His mother died when Joe was 17. Home was a cold-water flat where ice formed inside windows. He worked many jobs and graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in Glens Falls and in 1952 from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
In 1951, he married Barbara Frasier. The couple had four children, who survive him: Joseph, Susan, Kenneth and Catherine. Mrs. Bruno died in 2008.
Mr. Bruno is also survived by Kay Thompson, his longtime partner; five siblings, Florence, Arthur, Anthony, Robert and Vito Bruno; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Drafted in 1952, he became an infantry sergeant in Korea and won the light-heavyweight boxing title of the 35th Regiment. He returned to Glens Falls in 1954 and sold frozen foods. In 1959, after federal courts broke up Bell Telephone’s monopoly, he and a partner founded Coradian Corporation, a communications equipment company. It was sold in 1990 for $23 million.
Mr. Bruno’s career in state government began in 1969 as an aide to Assembly Speaker Perry B. Duryea. (He had campaigned for Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, a fellow Republican, in 1966.) From 1974 to 1977 he was chairman of the Rensselaer County Republican Committee. He first ran for office in 1976, winning the Senate seat for Rensselaer and parts of Saratoga, Albany and Columbia Counties.
In Albany, he became a puffing street runner, a raconteur at local taverns and, in the Senate, a striking figure with regal posture, a full mane of white hair and the chiseled head of a Roman emperor. He was one of 62 relatively powerless senators for years, though he rose to assistant majority leader in 1989.
But in 1994, he was quick to back Mr. Pataki for governor, and that fall, in a coup orchestrated by the governor-elect and his mentor, U.S. Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, Mr. Bruno ousted the senate majority leader, Ralph J. Marino, a Rockefeller Republican who had opposed Mr. Pataki.
The new triumvirate was hardly Olympian. While Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bruno were Republican allies against Mr. Silver, the Senate majority leader was often the odd man out. He was the most conservative and, unlike Mr. Pataki and Mr. Silver, both masters of nuance and the art of saying as little as possible, he was a blunt-spoken warrior, frustrated with tactical delays and legalistic folderol.
“We are as dysfunctional as we are because people aren’t willing to talk,” Mr. Bruno complained to The New York Times in 2002. “People ought to be more upfront and really say what’s on their mind.”
(Mr. Silver was later embroiled in a corruption scandal of his own and, convicted, remains in prison.)
After Mr. Spitzer became governor in 2007, Mr. Bruno came under attack for his use of state aircraft. An inquiry by Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo cleared Mr. Bruno and chastised the governor’s staff for using the state police to smear the senator. Mr. Spitzer apologized to Mr. Bruno.
When Mr. Paterson succeeded Mr. Spitzer in March 2008 — Mr. Spitzer had resigned amid a sex scandal — the majority leader, as senate president pro tempore, became acting lieutenant governor, one step from the governorship. But as the federal investigation closed in, he resigned both posts in June, quit the Senate in July and soon retired to his farm.
Even after his conviction, constituents recalled him affectionately. “He did a real fine job,” said Will MacVeigh, a student at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, where Mr. Bruno secured financing for the baseball stadium. “And really, all politicians do that kind of stuff.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.