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Bruno rallies backers amid probe Powerful senator seeks to assure them no laws were violated

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the subject of an FBI inquiry, has been making the rounds with his Republican colleagues as supporters worked Wednesday to try to ensure he stays in his powerful post.

Bruno, who came to his influential job in a coup 12 years ago, has feverishly worked the phones since Tuesday, trying to assure colleagues that he violated no laws. The Rensselaer County lawmaker revealed Tuesday that the FBI has been looking into his outside business ties since last spring.

"In politics, don't ever turn your back," Sen. William Larkin, an Orange County Republican and strong Bruno supporter, said when asked if any lawmakers were maneuvering to make any moves against the 77-year-old majority leader. "I think they'd be a damn fool if they did," he added.

"I couldn't envision anyone taking out Joe Bruno," added Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew. "To me, it's impossible at this point."

But more than a dozen other lawmakers, including several from Western New York, did not return calls to discuss the Bruno controversy. In Albany, Senate staffers said Bruno's allies were keeping close track of the situation to ensure Bruno's support does not suddenly erode just weeks after he was re-elected to serve the next two years as the Legislature's top Republican.

Meanwhile, it became clear in Albany on Wednesday that the undisclosed matter involving Bruno is still very active seven months after it began. James Featherstonhaugh, a prominent lobbyist and Bruno friend, said the FBI just three weeks ago requested documents involving a real estate development company that he and Bruno were involved with on land located a couple of towns away from the senator's home.

"I wasn't going to say no," Featherstonhaugh said of the FBI request. He said the FBI did issue a subpoena for the documents in what he called a formality since he willingly turned them over.

The FBI's interest in Bruno shocked the Capitol when the lawmaker revealed the inquiry Tuesday evening. He would only say the probe is looking at his outside business interests, of which he has many.

Much of the attention has been focused on Bruno's relationship with Albany-area businessman Jared Abbruzzese, who, like the senator, is involved in the thoroughbred horse business. Abbruzzese is also an investor in Empire Racing Associates, which is vying to take over the state's three major thoroughbred racetracks; Bruno will help decide the next racing franchise winner sometime next year.

Bruno also helped a company with ties to Abbruzzese get $500,000 in state "pork barrel" funding over the past two years, and the businessman has flown Bruno in his private jet on a number of occasions; the state lobbying commission is looking into the trips.

Featherstonhaugh said he suspects the documents the FBI wanted from him involved details of land sold by First Grafton, which he ran and Bruno held a trust in until last year, to a company managed by Abbruzzese's wife. "That would be my speculation," said Featherstonhaugh, a lawyer.

Featherstonhaugh said if the FBI is just looking into that land deal, there is little for Bruno to be concerned about. He called that a "perfectly straight-forward" land sale. But, the Bruno ally added, "They are clearly looking at a whole lot of other things."

The FBI has declined to comment, and the U.S. Attorney for the northern district, based in Syracuse, also would not discuss the matter Wednesday.

Senate Republicans burned up the phone lines Wednesday talking to each other about the Bruno developments. Asked if Bruno is in trouble internally, Featherstonhaugh said, "No, but I'm sure there are some people thinking about it."

"Today I would say there's absolutely no problem," Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said of Bruno's standing with Senate Republicans. Libous is among those mentioned as a possible replacement when Bruno leaves office.

Bruno allies said the senator has too many supporters for a coup, especially since the GOP conference would be divided sharply along upstate and downstate lines over who would replace him if he were to leave. "I stand by him as our elected majority leader," Larkin said.

Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, said the first she heard about the issue was from media reports. "I really don't know anything about it," she said Wednesday.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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