Spitzer's Blind Ambition

By Fund, John H. | The American Spectator, December/January 2006 | Go to article overview

Spitzer's Blind Ambition


Fund, John H., The American Spectator


ONE OF THE MOST ENDURING SYMBOLS in popular culture is the man on the white horse who rides into town and purges it of its errant ways. The problem in politics is that for every selfless Lone Ranger who arrives on his trusty steed, does good, and then leaves there are many more Napoleons who impose their will, stay forever, and fall prey to many of the same vices they pledged to root out.

Which one of these figures is Eliot Spitzer, the hyperactive attorney general of New York who will now he the state's first Democratic governor in 12 years? He has gone after gun makers, tobacco companies, and other politically correct targets. Then he broadened his reach to drug companies. Microsoft, brokerages, mutual funds, power plants, and the federal government. Who is next? Could it be your employer?

Spitzer's savvy PR skills have made him a media hero. Time' magazine called him "Crusader of the Year" and compared him to Moses. 60 M imites called him "The Sheriff of Wall Street." He certainly has exposed malfeasance and shady dealing, such as the Wall Street brokers who wooed corporate investment-banking clients by touting their stocks to investors when in internal e-mails they were admitting those stocks were "dogs." Spitzer has also commendably called for an end to the dysfunctional and secretive way in which the state budget is drawn up, which involves a cabal of "three men in a room"-namely the governor, the assembly speaker, and the senate majority leader. Everyone else in state government might as well be a potted plant.

But there are obstacles to people viewing Spit zcr as a reformer. His arbitrary use of power and strong-arm tactics, not to mention a continued pattern of not telling the truth, are increasingly raising concerns about the damage he has done both to the rule of law and to the business community on which so many Americans depend for their jobs. Becoming the "people's lawyer" that Spitzer says he aspires to is a great goal. But it shouldn't have to go hand-in-hand with bully-boy methods, unnecessarily shattered reputations, and a complete lack of due process tor companies and individuals. Many have been effectively convicted and sentenced in the media without ever getting their day in court.

Spitzer approaches his crusades with a religious zeal. However, he himself will admit he doesn't know what the promised land he is leading us to will look like. He told one reporter: "One of the things that I enjoy about going to Washington is the opportunity of testifying, chapter after chapter, that self-regulation has failed. What is it to be replaced with? I'm not sure."

IN THE MEANTIME WHILE HE IS THINKING up the contours of his Brave New World, we all pay a price from his having transformed the time-honored role of an attorney general-prosecuting lawbreakers-to one that bends the powers of his office to reshape the world to fit the vision of Eliot Spitzer.

His investigations of corporate misbehavior all have followed the same pattern. Spitzer discovers actions that he can portray as egregious behavior. Frequently, what outrages him is in fact common industry practice. Brushing aside explanations, he leaks the most titillating information he's found to the press. He combines the public embarrassment with the threat that he will use New York's uniquely harsh anti-fraud Martin Act to ruin bis targets.

Companies almost always agree to Spitzer's demands that they pay stiff fines and change the way they operate-all without any trials or judicial determinations that they did anything wrong. In a lew cases, Mr. Spitzer has settled with higher-ups, who are wealthy enough to pay millions in fines, and then gone after their lower-level employees. He's ruined a couple of careers that way. Usually, these individuals are found not guilty at trial.

"He's the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner," says Thomas Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and one of the few business leaders willing to criticize Spitzer on the record. …

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