Last Friday, New York governor David Paterson announced that he had picked Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. That same day, Joe Bruno, the powerful GOP former New York state Senate leader, was indicted on corruption charges.
What’s the connection? It turns out that, though Bruno and Gillibrand are from different parties, that indictment could end up bringing some unwanted publicity to New York’s new senator. That’s because, though it’s remained largely under the press’s radar, a business deal between Bruno and Gillibrand’s father, Doug Rutnik, was a partial focus of the federal probe that culminated with Friday’s indictment.
Let’s back up:
By most accounts, Rutnik, a well-connected Albany Republican lobbyist and power-broker, has been the prime architect and fund-raiser for Gillibrand’s political career.
Rutnik is tight with just about every powerful Republican in the state, including former governor George Pataki, and former senator Al D’Amato — in whose office Gillibrand got her start as an intern, before running for Congress as a Democrat.
Rutnik is also close with Bruno. In fact, as the Albany Times-Union (via Nexis) has reported, in the 1990s, Rutnik and another lobbyist, James Featherstonhaugh, bought hundreds of acres of isolated swampland in New York’s Rensselaer County, which they planned to develop. Bruno and his brother ultimately invested in the venture, known as the First Grafton Corporation.
Bruno’s son Kenneth Bruno, and his girlfriend Theresa Russo, both of whom were lobbyists at the time, bought parcels of the land, as did the wife of Jared Abbruzzese, a local businessman and friend of Joe Bruno who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants approved by the former Senate leader.
But the venture turned out to be a bust. Rutnik’s corporation bulldozed the land and built a road without the necessary environmental permits, prompting federal and state lawsuits that delayed development.
And according to a court document obtained by the Times Union, (via Nexis) in his 2004 divorce proceedings, Kenneth Bruno was accused by his wife of hiding commissions on land deals related to First Grafton “brought to the table by his father Joseph L. Bruno.”
In the end, Rutnik and Featherstonhaugh lost $100,000, Featherstonhaugh has said. First Grafton was dissolved in 2005.
And in December 2006, the Associated Press reported (via Nexis) that Featherstonhaugh had complied with a request from federal investigators looking into Bruno’s business dealings to turn over First Grafton’s records.
“I did receive a request for some records and those records have been provided,” Mr. Featherstonhaugh told the AP.
It’s not known what aspect of First Grafton the feds were interested in. And neither Rutnik, Featherstonhaugh, or First Grafton are named in Friday’s indictment agasint Bruno — though Abbruzzese is central to it.
Still, the fact that the prime architect of the career of New York’s new senator has ties to the state’s indicted former Senate leader — and specifically, that the two teamed up on a business deal that has attracted scrutiny from federal investigators — deserves more attention that it’s yet gotten.
And it’s worth asking whether Paterson considered the connection before he named Gillibrand.