Robert Bruno, who has served as Owasco highway superintendent since 2012, was arrested by New York State Police Thursday and accused of using town funds for personal gain.
Bruno is charged with official misconduct, a class A misdemeanor. According to a state police news release, he allegedly used town funds to buy equipment for his construction company. Bruno owns Bob Bruno Excavating, an Auburn-area construction company.
State police said they are working on the case with a special prosecutor, Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker. The charge against Bruno is connected with misconduct alleged to have happened in the spring of 2017.
State police deferred to Baker when asked if more charges could be brought in the case. Baker was not immediately available for comment Friday. Bruno could not be reached for comment Friday.
The case stems from complaints made by town resident and Owasco employee Sam Schoonmaker, state police said. Schoonmaker, hired by Bruno in April 2016, brought concerns to the state Attorney General's Office in August 2017. He claimed that Bruno was using town employees on town time for his private business, and he claimed that Bruno made purchases for himself using town funds.
Schoonmaker was laid off from his position in January 2018. Through his union, Civil Service Employees Association, he filed a lawsuit accusing the town of illegally retaliating against him. The town settled that case in September 2018 and reinstated Schoonmaker to a motor vehicle operator position in its water department, plus paid him $1,702 in lost employment and health benefits costs.
This year, Schoonmaker challenged Bruno in the highway superintendent election and raised some of his concerns publicly. Bruno won re-election.
While he's hopeful more criminal charges are forthcoming, Schoonmaker said Friday that he feels vindicated by the fact that state police made an arrest.
"I was the one being bad-mouthed by everyone," he said. "There was really a lot involved with this."
But Owasco Supervisor Ed Wagner said Friday the charges against Bruno are "politically motivated" and his alleged crime amounts to "stealing a candy bar."
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State police declined to respond to Wagner's characterization, but said the town supervisor was interviewed during the investigation.
In a prepared statement provided to The Citizen, Wagner claimed the charge is connected to the repair of a backhoe owned by Bruno that was used on a town project. The window of the backhoe broke and town funds were used to fix it.
Wagner called the official misconduct charge against Bruno "unwarranted" and "the result of a clerical error."
"Under no circumstances do I believe Robert Bruno willfully attempted to defraud the taxpayers of Owasco regarding reimbursement for the broken window," he said.
Wagner revealed that since Bruno became the highway superintendent in 2012, he has loaned personal equipment for use by town departments. In December 2012, the town board passed a resolution praising Bruno for "his efforts in realizing actual cost savings" in his first year as highway superintendent. The savings, according to meeting minutes, included donations of "personal materials and equipment," such as an air compressor with hammer, a sand blaster and compressor, a generator, spray gun, outside lights, forms and pins and a chain fall with sling.
The total savings realized by Bruno, according to the town, was $97,975. A portion of those funds — $2,675 — were savings from Bruno's personal equipment donations.
Bruno continued to use personal equipment for town projects, according to Wagner, which he believes saved town taxpayers money. The town, he explained, avoided having to rent equipment or hire outside entities to "accomplish tasks that at times are emergencies."
In June, Bruno and Wagner signed an agreement regarding the use of Bruno's personal equipment for town projects. The agreement states that the town believes "it is in the best interest of the taxpayers to memorialize this arrangement."
"To be clear, it was Mr. Bruno loaning the town his equipment and not the other way around," Wagner said.
Wagner acknowledged that the state comptroller's office recently completed a nine-month audit of town finances. He told The Citizen that during an exit interview with town officials, representatives of the state comptroller's office didn't mention the use of Bruno's personal equipment for town purposes.
The state comptroller's office hasn't responded to a request for comment. State police confirmed that they were working with the comptroller's office as part of the criminal investigation.
After he was charged at the Auburn state police station on Thursday, Bruno was issued an appearance ticket to appear at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 16, in Owasco Town Court.
Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.