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10th August
2007

First Published in The New York Sun, August 10, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

It isn’t a good thing when the power and influence of a new governor peaks before he takes office, but that appears to be exactly what has happened to Eliot Spitzer. A year ago he was the inevitable governor, poised to crush one of the more attractive Democrats to come forward in many years, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, in a primary election.

The GOP standard bearer, John Faso, a former assemblyman, was a victim of 12 years of increasingly lackluster performance by the Republican incumbent, George Pataki. The conventional wisdom, months before the election, was that Mr. Spitzer was not just the inevitable governor, but the inevitable president, sure to become the nation’s first Jewish chief executive after being elected (a mere formality) in 2012 or, at worst in 2016.

That he was going to be a wildly successful governor was accepted as a matter of faith. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, his record as state Attorney General seemed a model of ethical behavior and administrative skill. The catchy slogan, “On Day One Everything Changes,” was accepted as gospel by editorial boards and pundits nearly everywhere in the state from Buffalo to Brooklyn.

Now a year later, it seems far more possible, though still not probable, that it could be Mayor Bloomberg who might become the first Jewish president, not Mr. Spitzer. The idea of a Spitzer presidency now seems almost as far-fetched as the aborted effort by Mr. Pataki. Meanwhile the new governor seems to be morphing into a modern-day version of Richard Nixon, post Watergate.

Mr. Spitzer has ensnared himself in a messy scandal that could, conceivably, bring down his administration. It is easy to say that this isn’t Watergate, but the parallels are there. And there are enough people prowling around, folks with large ambitions that need to be fed, to keep the pot boiling, with Mr. Spitzer’s reputation simmering away for some time to come.

There is certainly enough to be suspicious about. It is clear that key aides to the governor attempted to use the State Police to defame Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. That was bad enough, indeed, it was a chilling thought that a governor or his staff could use the State Police to pursue a political agenda. But the more we learn, the more sinister the episode seems.

Aides to the governor were designated as counsel, possibly to remove them from possibly testifying. A top aide has hired a criminal attorney, not a good sign. And shades of the White House taping system, it was learned that state officials were carrying about separate “political” Blackberry devices to possibly shield incriminating e-mails from public scrutiny.

Attorney General Cuomo quickly concluded that while the incident was ethically repugnant, no crime had been committed. But Mr. Cuomo did not have or even know about the dual Blackberrys, nor did he have the power to compel the governor’s aides to testify. The Albany County district attorney, David Soares, who is armed with the subpoena powers Mr. Cuomo lacks, has entered the fray. He has already brought down Alan Hevesi. Could Mr. Spitzer be next in his sights, a target that would make him perhaps the best known district attorney in America?

No one should be surprised that this happened to Mr. Spitzer, who has been able to somehow play the game with different rules than other politicians. In 1998 he admitted that he illegally financed his primary campaign for attorney general with loans from his father. This breach somehow did not engender the kind of outrage one would expect given the post that Mr. Spitzer was seeking.

Troopergate was not the first time that Mr. Spitzer used his public position to pursue a political end. As attorney general, Mr. Spitzer charged that Philip Anschutz, the former chairman of Qwest, illegally profited from initial public offerings in exchange for steering lucrative investment banking business to a brokerage firm.

The punishment was that Mr. Anschutz would contribute $4.4 million to charities of Mr. Spitzer’s choosing, which curiously included $100,000 to the politically-connected Hispanic Federation, then headed by Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, a key Bronx Democratic machine loyalist.

Ms. Cortes-Vazquez and her group gave Mr. Spitzer some key assistance in his 1998 general election victory over incumbent Attorney General Dennis Vacco, when she lambasted Mr. Vacco for remarks she characterized as prejudiced toward Latinos. Was this a happy accident or a political payoff? Judge for yourself.

Mr. Spitzer, in his crusade against the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Grasso, over Mr. Grasso’s compensation package, took great pains to avoid any sanctions against Exchange board member, H. Carl McCall. The prominent Democrat had signed off on Mr. Grasso’s lucrative package in his role as chair of the Exchange’s personnel committee.

It seems to me that if the compensation was illegally high — Mr. Spitzer’s contention, not mine — Mr. McCall, in his fiduciary role, was far more culpable than Mr. Grasso. But the Sheriff of Wall Street seemed to have little interest in slapping down a prominent Democrat.

If the Spitzer administration is guilty of abusing its power for political ends, it is following the pattern that Mr. Spitzer previously has set and got away with. I suspect that once the Pandora’s box is fully pried open, more demons will emerge.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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