Friday's acquittal of former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno on federal bribery charges should serve as a wake-up call to the public about what's considered allowable conduct in state government.
The 85-year-old retired senator was cleared Friday of allegations that he received payments from businessman Jared Abbruzzese over the years in exchange for his influence, particularly to get Abbruzzese a contract to take over the state's racing franchise from the New York Racing Association.
Among the allegations federal prosecutors made, but couldn't make stick, were that Bruno accepted $360,000 for telecommunications consulting work. (Witnesses said they never saw Bruno do any work for the money.) In another case, Bruno allegedly received an $80,000 payment from Abbruzzese for a race horse. (The horse was only insured for for $10,000.)
In exchange for these payments, prosecutors alleged, Abbruzzese gained access and influence in state government. The two men apparently met, by the way, aboard Abbruzzese's private jet as they were returning from a golf trip to Florida.
Maybe there was no proof that a crime had been committed. The jurors in each of Bruno's two trials thought that. But that doesn't mean something isn't wrong with the system and the existing rules that allow these sorts of questionable arrangements to take place.
Bruno spent more than three decades in Albany doling out taxpayer money and getting credit for it. (He has his name on at least 17 buildings in Rensselaer County, including a minor-league baseball stadium.)
Access to money, contracts and connections is why people like Mr. Abbruzzese fly people like Mr. Bruno on their private jets and why they hire people like Mr. Bruno to be "consultants."
What should be disturbing to taxpayers in the wake of the acquittal is that apparently, none of this is illegal. What should be disturbing is that high-placed individuals and the politicians are allowed to go about their business with a wink and a nod, flouting ethics, weak laws and common sense. Then they have the nerve to act offended when rational people, including federal prosecutors, make the connection.
This not-guilty verdict is bad for state residents and taxpayers because it legitimizes a system that places individuals with the right contacts and money above others who don't.
If you need an example of why our state government needs campaign finance reform, ethics reform, greater transparency and more disclosure of private relationships, don't look at the practices that send politicians to jail.
Look at what keeps them out.