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Eliot Spitzer's Real Agenda... is Eliot Spitzer

By Kimberley Strassel

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer appeared on Comedy Central late last year, admitting to host Stephen Colbert that as a kid he was the "enforcer" on the soccer team, the guy who "took people out." "You play hard, you play rough, and hopefully you don't get caught," he said. The AG was trying for a laugh, but it may have been one of the more revealing insights into his career.

Mr. Spitzer has certainly played hard and rough in his time as New York's top law enforcer, and for the most part he hasn't got caught. More telling is his reaction when he is called out, as is happening more often now that the business community has started to challenge his authority. Mr. Spitzer, now running for the governor's mansion, has responded to a growing list of accusations of abuse by denying, dissembling and developing convenient cases of amnesia.

A recent example has to do with just how he came to sue former New York Stock Exchange chief Dick Grasso over his $140 million pay package. In February, Mr. Spitzer appeared on CNBC's "Mad Money," and told his audience: "I had a duty to bring it when John Reed, who was then the CEO/chairman of the board of the NYSE . . . walked into my office and gave me the Webb report [a NYSE investigation into Mr. Grasso's compensation] and said 'Eliot, our board doesn't want to handle this, you have to.' "

That's certainly a convenient explanation of events, especially now that Mr. Grasso's legal team is digging into information that it hopes will show Mr. Spitzer brought the case solely to further his political career. Inconveniently for the AG, Mr. Reed has a different recollection. In a recent deposition, he was asked if Mr. Spitzer's description on "Mad Money" was "true." "No. No. It's--I don't want to get into truth or not-truth--it is not a good description of what happened."

Mr. Reed went on to say that it was he who'd received a call from Mr. Spitzer saying he'd be "happy" to receive the Webb report. Granted, this is one man's word against another, and the litigation has become so ugly that both sides have an interest in denying responsibility--though it's also worth noting that at least one was speaking under oath.

Or consider when H&R Block CEO Mark Ernst wrote an op-ed in March in these pages defending his company against Mr. Spitzer's lawsuit over Block's retirement savings plans. The suit was designed to generate headlines, coming at the height of tax season, but the facts in the op-ed also suggested it was vastly inflated. While Mr. Spitzer is suing for $250 million, Mr. Ernst noted that the AG had earlier offered to settle for less than $30 million.

Later that very day, the AG told Reuters that Mr. Ernst's claims of settlement demands were "flat-out false." Yet H&R Block had already released a letter that its chief legal officer had sent to Mr. Spitzer weeks before the lawsuit was even announced, which made specific reference to Mr. Spitzer's settlement demands.

And then there's the AIG case, in which a Journal news reporter last year revealed that Mr. Spitzer had threatened to indict the giant insurer (a death sentence) unless the board fired its longtime CEO, Hank Greenberg. Mr. Spitzer has increasingly come up for criticism for that threat, smacking as it does of a complete lack of due process. Surprise! In March a Business Week story reported that "Spitzer's deputy, Michele Hirshman, denies that such a threat was ever made."

On a personal level, the AG has also struggled to explain away his penchant to threaten people in private. Former Goldman Sachs Chairman John Whitehead wrote on this page in December that after he'd published an op-ed criticizing Mr. Spitzer, the AG had called him to say: "Mr. Whitehead, it's now a war between us and you've fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done."

Mr. Spitzer denied any threat, although he noted (without admitting guilt) that he simply had a lot of "passion." Meanwhile, new emails unveiled this week show that even as Mr. Spitzer was taking the soft approach, his aide, Darren Dopp, was trashing Mr. Whitehead to news reporters, calling him "nutty."

This is hardly an isolated incident. Consider: Former GE chief Jack Welch confirmed last year that Mr. Spitzer told him to deliver a message to Ken Langone--whom the AG is suing along with Mr. Grasso. Mr. Welch couldn't remember the precise words, but broadly confirmed a Newsweek account that the AG had threatened to "put a spike through Langone's heart." (A Spitzer spokesman later said this was a "hearsay account from a hallway conversation.")

A spokesman for New York Congresswoman Sue Kelly reported in 2003 that after Ms. Kelly disagreed with Mr. Spitzer over legislation that he felt would hamper his investigations, he hit her with a "slew of political threats and personal insults," warning he'd come to her district and "cause problems." Mr. Spitzer's office described the event as "spirited and frank." To which Ms. Kelly's spokesman bluntly replied: "The attorney general acted like a thug, and his office can try to spin it any way they want to."

Mr. Spitzer's office has clearly spun his verbal tirades as mere differences in recollection, and since most took place in private, he's so far received the benefit of the doubt. But in other instances--Mr. Grasso, H&R Block and Mr. Greenberg--there are disturbing suggestions that Mr. Spitzer is peddling information to the public that may not be accurate. You can bet that if this were President Bush, the press would be all over the disparate versions of events. But this is Mr. Spitzer, who at this very moment is running campaign ads that are nothing more than a compilation of the adulatory headlines he's received over his tenure.

Far better for the public if a little more light were directed on these discrepancies. Mr. Spitzer is asking to govern one of the most populous states in the nation. Politicians are certainly allowed "passion," but given the power they wield they also have to demonstrate restraint, honesty and good judgment. Voters deserve to know if Mr. Spitzer has the character to hold such a job.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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