Metroland | March 22, 2008
As the country obsessed over the tattoos and singing chops of a call girl named "Kristen," another, darker story was beginning to take form, a political thriller about the silencing of a lone crusader and of the powerful, exacting retribution against a flawed nemesis -- a story that takes place in an America where governors and senators, even presidents, can become the target of concerted efforts by shadowy inside dealers, Wall Street power brokers, and partisan, bureaucratic hatchet men. In this story, our fallen hero, the former governor of New York state, Eliot Spitzer, was victim to more than just his own sordid extramarital proclivity.

The story begins with a pugnacious attorney general making his reputation by chasing down and prosecuting high-profile and powerful corporate crooks. Some of the more notorious of these Wall Street tycoons: former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso, who came under Spitzer's fire after walking away from his post with a $139 million deferred compensation package; and Kenneth Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, who, through his NYSE committee chairmanship, signed off on Grasso's sizable retirement bonus and, in doing so, drew Spitzer's prosecutorial interests.

Langone declared war on the attorney general, telling New York magazine, "One way or another, Spitzer is going to pay for what he's done to me and the havoc he's caused in the New York business climate." He, in large part, bankrolled Spitzer's primary gubernatorial opponent Tom Suozzi, exclaiming in the same interview that he intended "to make sure everyone knows that Eliot Spitzer isn't fit to be governor of New York state or any other office, for that matter."

"We all have our private hell," Langone enthused after Spitzer's connection to the Emperor's Club broke. "I hope his private hell is hotter than anybody else's" -- a sentiment shared by most in the Wall Street business world. It was no surprise that the trading floors have followed every break in the Spitzer scandal with cheers and applause.

As governor, Spitzer continued his dogged attacks on presumed enemies. His notorious steamroller threat to Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) was followed by a full-on, months-long brawl with the powerful Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick). Bruno called for and received investigations into the "political espionage" surrounding Troopergate. Those investigations, undertaken by both New York's attorney general and Albany County District Attorney David Soares, turned up nothing especially actionable. Close Spitzer appointments resigned as a result, but the battle between Spitzer and Bruno continued, taking an ugly turn when allegations broke that Bruno's political hit man, Roger Stone, had called and threatened Spitzer's father, Bernard.

Stone resigned over these allegations but continued, he claims, his war against Spitzer. On Dec. 6, 2007, Stone cryptically, and, as it turned out, presciently, told radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish that "Eliot Spitzer will not serve out his term as governor of the state of New York."

When asked recently about his involvement in the Spitzer investigation, the ever-coy Stone told Newsday columnist Ellis Henican, "No comment," but added, "I will say that I knew it was coming."

How did he know? To whom was he talking?

"Even though there's no evidence he sent the governor to a hooker or made the Bush Justice Department follow up on a banking tip," Henican wrote, "he's been energetically working to undermine the governor."

Which leads to Spitzer's most powerful enemy, the perfect villain in any thriller: the administration of George W. Bush.

On Feb. 14, Spitzer issued what would be one of his last official salvos in that battle through an op-ed published in the Washington Post titled, "Predatory Lenders' Partner in Crime."

Several years ago, Spitzer wrote, "predatory lending was widely understood to present a looming national crisis. This threat was so clear that, as New York attorney general, I joined with colleagues in the other 49 states in attempting to fill the void left by the federal government. Individually, and together, state attorneys general of both parties brought litigation or entered into settlements with many subprime lenders that were engaged in predatory lending practices. Several state legislatures, including New York's, enacted laws aimed at curbing such practices."

"Not only did the Bush administration do nothing to protect consumers," he wrote, "it embarked on an aggressive and unprecedented campaign to prevent states from protecting their residents from the very problems to which the federal government was turning a blind eye."

The Bush administration had filed its own lawsuits to block Spitzer's efforts, investigative journalist Greg Palast pointed out in his March 14 radio report for Air America. It appears that Bush and Spitzer's enemies in the banking world were teaming up.

"Bush's banking buddies," Palast wrote, "were especially steamed that Spitzer hammered bank practices across the nation using New York State laws."

Spitzer used these laws to attack the "predatory enablers in the investment banking community," Palast wrote, and these powerful banking interests made it clear "to Bush's enforcers at Justice who their number one target should be. And it wasn't Bin Laden."

"Do I believe the banks called [the Dept. of] Justice and said, 'Take him down today!'" Palast wrote. "Naw, that's not how the system works. But the big players knew that unless Spitzer was taken out, he would create enough ruckus to spoil the party."

On Feb. 14, Spitzer testified before Congress about predatory lending, but his personal fate had already been sealed. During the two days prior, more than a dozen phone calls and text messages from Spitzer to a prostitution ring allegedly were captured by a federal wiretap, as well as evidence of Spitzer's infamous encounter with a prostitute.

Federal authorities, the IRS, and state lawmen, as it has been revealed, had been watching Spitzer for months. How did the relatively innocuous money transfers -- totaling $80,000 -- of a multimillionaire lead to a full-blown federal investigation, with wiretaps and a sting operation?

The investigators have claimed that they suspected the transfers could have been bribe payments, a claim that Scott Horton called absurd in his March 12 article in the New Republic. The money was moving out of Spitzer's account, not in. If they had suspected that the governor was being bribed, why didn't they just ask him?

"Several reports about this case have suggested that it is somehow routine for prosecutors to go through the financial records of public officials to look for evidence of corruption," Horton wrote. "But in the absence of specific grounds justifying the investigation ... prosecutors have no such authority. In this case ... the investigators do not appear to be looking into a crime, they appear to be investigating Spitzer in the hopes of finding something compromising."

It wasn't the money transfers that drew the attention of the authorities, Horton continued, it was the man who made the transfers.

Famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote in the Washington Post that "federal money-laundering statues criminalize many entirely legitimate and conventional banking transactions ... to give prosecutors wide discretion in deciding which 'bad guys' to go after.�

And the decision to go after the bad guys, under the Bush Department of Justice, has illustrated a clear partisan agenda. Within the Public Integrity Section, which is called upon whenever an investigation could have political implications, Horton wrote, 5.6 cases of investigation into Democrats have been initiated for every one into Republicans.

"Considering that the official account shows this was a 'routine' examination of bank records, the level of resources allocated to it, including investigators and prosecutors, was lavish," Horton wrote. "This again suggests a political prosecution. Political direction is rarely overt. It usually takes the form of generous allocation of resources for political targets, and constriction of resources for persons who are politically protected. Clearly, moving the case against Spitzer had become a priority."

Did the Bush Justice Department zealously go after Spitzer, as Horton, Palast, and Dershowitz wonder? Was there a partisan agenda behind the investigation? A use of the most powerful police agency in the country to crush an inconvenient and voracious opponent? If this is a political thriller, and there was an acknowledged effort to bring down Spitzer at all costs just to please powerful interests, have the villains gotten away with the perfect crime?


Metroland was founded in 1978 as a monthly entertainment guide; a year and a half later it went weekly, continuing to focus primarily on arts, entertainment and lifestyles. In September 1986, Metroland reinvented itself as a full-fledged alternative newsweekly, offering...
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