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Howard Bennett, Former Teamster, Testifies In Joe Bruno Corruption Trial

MICHAEL VIRTANEN   11/ 6/09 11:51 AM ET   AP

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ALBANY, N.Y. — A former Teamsters official testified that then New York state Sen. Joseph Bruno told him in 1994 that Wright Investors Service wanted to manage his local's pension fund and didn't disclose he was being paid by the company.

Howard Bennett, president and a fund trustee for Local 294 in Albany, said Thursday he had known Bruno for years personally and as a lawmaker with a good record on labor issues. He contacted Bruno sometimes about union legislative concerns, both before and after Wright started managing millions of union dollars, he said.

Bennett, now retired, testified at Bruno's federal corruption trial. Accused of using his state influence to enrich himself by some $3.2 million over 13 years, Bruno faces eight fraud counts. He was Senate majority leader from 1995 until retiring last year. He has said he simply had a sideline consulting business and got paid for that work.

"There was no quid pro quo there," Bennett said, when asked if he brought up with Bruno legislative actions he wanted in return for investing with Wright. Bruno never mentioned, and Bennett never asked, whether the senator was working on commission for the investment company, Bennett said. "My intuition told me there was a relationship there," he said.

Bennett and the union president who followed him, John Bulgaro, testified about subsequent Teamster successes in Albany, including legislation to have companies instead of drivers ticketed for overweight trucks and obtaining training grants. They'd sought help from Bruno as well as other legislators for the law change, and from Bruno's office for finding state grants.

Both union officials said the pension investments required that Wright stacked up financially in its past performance to get considered and then bid competitively against other companies. Both witnesses cited their fiduciary duty to the union to make good pension investments.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Coombe asked whether, if all bidders measured up financially, whether Wright would get preference because of Bruno's involvement.

"We would be pleased he got the work because we knew his track record as a legislator," Bennett said. If Wright wasn't performing, Bruno's involvement would have had "no effect" on terminating the company, he testified.

Coombe then presented Bennett's grand jury testimony from last year, where he said he would have hated to do that. "I would be concerned access may not be there for us in the future," he testified, according to the grand jury transcript.

Bulgaro said Bruno never told him that he was being paid by Wright, though Bulgaro assumed so. When the pension fund in 2003 was considering terminating its Wright account because of poor performance, Bruno introduced him to Wright's chief executive, who made a pitch to keep the business. The account was terminated anyway, and neither Bulgaro nor Bruno ever mentioned it after that, he said.

"It was what it was," Bulgaro said. The Teamsters' legislative and grant interests and its pension investments "were two separate issues," he said.

Officials from the Service Employees Pension Fund of Upstate New York and the unions representing New York City police sergeants and city jail corrections officers also testified they invested with Wright after sales presentations in competitive bidding.

All said they got no disclosure forms from or about Bruno, and all said they had legislative issues that they lobbied Bruno and other lawmakers to support.

Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, described how he successfully sought state measures over several years that gave his members benefits like New York City police and firefighters, including full pensions after 20 years. Unlike the other union officials who testified, he said he couldn't remember who brought Wright to his attention, and he didn't think it was Bruno.

Asked if he ever talked to Bruno about Wright, he said, "I never did." The fund is still with Wright, and performing well, he said.

Prosecutors say Bruno, who was paid for finding Wright new accounts, got Wright commissions from its management of that fund.

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Filed by Eve Attermann  |