Eliot Spitzer

It’s not about the sex.

Over the next few days and weeks, we’ll undoubtedly hear from various partisan loyalists, public apologists, and libertine evangelists. The meme will run along familiar, if treadworn, tracks: America is a land of prudes, we demonize sex, what does it matter who Spitzer slept with, it’s a private matter, personal affairs shouldn’t lead to public disgrace, as long as he was doing a good job, etc… etc….

But this is far from a purely private matter, and it’s most certainly not about the sex. As Attorney General, and then as the state’s chief executive, Spitzer has been charged with enforcing and upholding New York State law. If the allegations against Governor Spitzer are true, then he brazenly abdicated that responsibility.

At a minimum: Spitzer discovered the existence of an organized criminal network and failed to report or prosecute. He engaged in various deceptive tactics designed to shield both himself and the criminal enterprise from prosecution. He provided direct financial support to organized crime.

An affair is a lapse in judgment. Sleeping with an intern is a private matter. Perjury, obstruction, prostitution… those are crimes. As New York’s chief executive and its former chief prosecutor, Spitzer’s alleged actions stand as a stark rebuke of the public trust he accepted.

But his scorn for the process and purpose of the law shouldn’t be a surprise. Spitzer has long shown a willingness to bend political power to his personal will, whether by using the power of the State Police to attempt political blackmail, or by twisting the power of the law to intimidate, extort, and exact tribute from his victims. From the Wall Street Journal:

He routinely used the extraordinary threat of indicting entire firms, a financial death sentence, to force the dismissal of executives, such as AIG’s Maurice “Hank” Greenberg. He routinely leaked to the press emails obtained with subpoena power to build public animosity against companies and executives. In the case of Mr. Greenberg, he went on national television to accuse the AIG founder of “illegal” behavior. Within the confines of the law itself, though, he never indicted Mr. Greenberg. Nor did he apologize.

In perhaps the incident most suggestive of Mr. Spitzer’s lack of self-restraint, the then-Attorney General personally threatened John Whitehead after the former Goldman Sachs chief published an article on this page defending Mr. Greenberg. “I will be coming after you,” Mr. Spitzer said, according to Mr. Whitehead’s account. “You will pay the price. This is only the beginning, and you will pay dearly for what you have done.”

Jack Welch, the former head of GE, said he was told to tell Ken Langone — embroiled in Mr. Spitzer’s investigation of former NYSE chairman Dick Grasso — that the AG would “put a spike through Langone’s heart.” New York Congresswoman Sue Kelly, who clashed with Mr. Spitzer in 2003, had her office put out a statement that “the attorney general acted like a thug.”

These are not merely acts of routine political rough-and-tumble. They were threats — some rhetorical, some acted upon — by one man with virtually unchecked legal powers.

In a scathing indictment of Spitzer’s tenure as chief prosecutor, Roger Donway wrote:

His purpose in these campaigns has not been the narrow one of punishing law-breakers. Rather, he has sought a sweeping restructuring of the business landscape in order to make it accord with his moral vision, as though he were a religious dictator suddenly transplanted from the Middle East to Manhattan.

Spitzer made common use of an insidious New York State Law, the Martin Act, to work his will upon his victims. Donway describes the power of the laws Spitzer relied on:

[The Martin Act] empowers [New York’s attorney general] to subpoena any document he wants from anyone doing business in the state; to keep an investigation totally secret or to make it totally public; and to choose between filing civil or criminal charges whenever he wants. People called in for question during Martin Act investigations do not have a right to counsel or a right against self-incrimination. . . . Now for the scary part: To win a case, the AG doesn’t have to prove that the defendant intended to defraud anyone, that a transaction took place, or that anyone actually was defrauded. [emphasis added]

In leaks of the recorded conversations that Spitzer is alleged to have had with his favorite pimps, Spitzer supposedly asks of the young woman he’s hired, “What does she look like?” Mild curiosity at best. It didn’t matter to Spitzer who the young woman was, what her name was… she was merely an object of his gratification. A completely fungible object of his will, something to be rented, used, and then dismissed. Given his history, one wonders how many people Spitzer treated with similar contempt. The aides and advisers who worked for him? The innocent men and women who suffered his scorn and attention when he was Attorney General? The voters of New York? His wife and family?

In an eerily prescient (and ironic) passage, Donway describes Spitzer’s limitless ambition:

Virtually every article written about Eliot Spitzer accuses him of being politically ambitious. Typical was an article that appeared in Fortune; its author wrote: “Many a state attorney general has used the job as a springboard to higher political office. Rarely, however, has there been an example as egregious and blatant as that of Eliot Spitzer, current attorney general of New York State.” In response to these many accusations, Spitzer “replies that he’s happy to have people impugn his motives when they can’t challenge the merits of his actions.” [emphasis added]

The merits of his actions have been challenged. As have their legality. But in a further twist of irony and hypocrisy, Governor Spitzer will undoubtedly marshal a vigorous defense, surely invoking his constitutional right to counsel and against self-incrimination. But even in this, the last and final spasms of his public life, he has managed to deny his victims the same privileges he employs for his own purposes and aims.

There is no right against self-incrimination for Silda Wall Spitzer, no refuge of counsel for her shattered marriage or her daughters’ pain. That she stood by the man who betrayed her, who belittled and scorned his private vows and public oaths, is a testament to a profound courage and a singular strength. But neither strength or courage can mend wounds or heal what has been broken. Only time and tireless work can do that. Whether that work is worth doing, only she can decide.

Governor Spitzer may never see the inside of a jail, but the mask of grief that his wife wore at his side is a testament to the private prison into which this reckless and feckless bully has placed his family. Whether or not they can free themselves is a purely personal and private question. But for Spitzer’s other victims, the ones he denied constitutional rights, the ones he blackmailed and bullied, they deserve an apology as well.

A good first start would be a repeal of the Martin Act.

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