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Spitzer in Tragedy of His Making

By Ed Koch

Governor Eliot Spitzer is now the protagonist in what is unfolding as a Greek tragedy -- an event that brings the principal player from the height of success to the depth of despair. Greek tragedies are often the result of hubris -- engaging in prideful actions that defy the gods.

Watching this tragedy unfold saddens me. Governor Spitzer and I have known each other for many years. I supported him in his two successful elections for attorney general, defending him in his first campaign when he was under attack for allegedly not accurately reporting a loan from his father. I supported him early in his campaign for governor. His huge victory with 69 percent of the vote, less than eight months ago, based on his enormous success as attorney general, elated his supporters and was threatening to his political opponents. He had displayed some hubris when as attorney general he sought out John Whitehead, an investment banker with whom he had some issues, and threatened him over the telephone allegedly saying, as Whitehead recalls, "'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."

After his election as governor, Eliot clearly believed he had an enormous mandate for change, as he did and as was evidenced by his campaign slogan, "On Day One, Everything Changes." Eliot, who had just spent eight years in Albany as attorney general, should have known that when it comes to reforming state government: it takes, as they could say, "three to tango." The governor is, of course, first among equals. But nothing happens in Albany without the approval of the two other major players, the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and the majority leader of the Senate, Joe Bruno.

Governor Spitzer, like other governors before him, has found dealing with the Speaker and Majority Leader to be extremely difficult. Understandably frustrated, Spitzer apparently believed the aggressive tactics he used as attorney general, which earned him the title, "The Sheriff of Wall Street, " would be effective for a governor. As attorney general, simply by threatening a lawsuit, Eliot could get almost any publicly-traded business and its principal officers to accept his demands so as not to endanger the financial position of the business and the price of the company's shares.

His tactics did not intimidate Silver and Bruno, who took offense at the governor's lack of respect for their power and prerogatives. Eliot's first major attempt to get his way was seeking to decide the selection by the state legislature of a replacement for State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and preclude the election of Tom DiNapoli, the overwhelming favorite of the Assembly, the body in which he sat for twenty years prior to his election as State Comptroller.

Eliot's comments about DiNapoli, who was highly regarded by his colleagues and the Speaker, to the effect that DiNapoli was "thoroughly and totally unqualified" -- untrue -- did not prevent DiNapoli's election. Instead they provoked a wave of anger directed at the governor throughout the political system. When Eliot said to Bruno at a public meeting in the Capitol, "This is my room and we'll play by my rules," the ultimate actions yet to come of Eliot's staff were set in motion. When Eliot allegedly referred to Bruno as "senile," and worse, anyone could predict the chasm would widen, no matter what denial or apology was made.

All of this hubris led to the Greek tragedy that is center stage in Albany. According to The New York Times, "a report from that office [Attorney General Andrew Cuomo] released Monday revealed that members of Mr. Spitzer's staff had improperly used the State Police to develop a dossier on the use of state aircraft by Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate Republican leader, in order to plant an embarrassing article about Mr. Bruno in the news media." It is now conceded by all that Bruno's use of the state's plane conformed with all of the rules now applying to those using the plane, including the governor.

Two top aides to the governor, secretary to the governor, Richard Baum, and communications director Darren Dopp, appear to have cooperated in the plot, and both, when asked by the attorney general's staff to submit to questioning, declined and instead each submitted a statement not subject to cross examination by the attorney general. David Nocenti, the governor's counsel, had advised the two, according to The Times, "to refuse to submit to questioning by investigators from the state attorney general's office."

As a result of the publication of the attorney general's report, Governor Spitzer suspended Mr. Dopp indefinitely, but Mr. Baum remains on his staff. A third member of the governor's staff, assistant secretary for public safety, William Howard, apparently also involved, was transferred to an unspecified job outside the governor's office. Eliot was interviewed by Times reporter Patrick Healy and according to The Times, "reiterated his statements this week that he was unaware of any effort by his staff to discredit Mr. Bruno, and that he had been told that the State Police were following procedure in complying with inquiries from reporters about Mr. Bruno's travel."

In fact, there was no Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for the information before the information was apparently assembled by the state police at the request of Mr. Dopp. A new state agency created by law at the request of the governor, The State Ethics Commission, chaired by John Feerick, has announced that it will conduct hearings on the entire subject. The key question undoubtedly will be, who was involved in the conspiracy to collect adverse material on Joe Bruno. Two who have said they were not involved, Baum and the governor, will surely be called as witnesses by the State Ethics Commission.

The governor wrote an op ed for The Times this Sunday noting, "I have apologized to Joe Bruno, the Senate majority leader, and now I want to apologize to all New Yorkers."

You can be sure that Joe Bruno, an experienced political warrior, will not let the matter rest. The next legislative election, in 2008, will see the Republicans stressing the issue of whether the public should turn over to the Democrats the entire legislature in view of the executive branch's using state police for political chicanery. Whether or not the public will accept the governor's apology will depend on the outcome of the hearings yet to come.

I want to believe the governor, because he is my friend and I voted for him and his reform program. His answers under oath will determine my ultimate opinion of his involvement. Of course, he is politically responsible for all acts, good and bad, occurring on his watch, even if, as he claims, he was never told of all that was happening by any of the three people politically closest to him, his counsel David Nocenti, secretary to the governor Richard Baum and his communications director, Darren Dopp.

My advice to Governor Spitzer, even before he is called to testify as he surely will be, is that he hold a press conference devoted solely to his knowledge and involvement and that of his close advisors already named as involved in the media, and answer every question. The TV camera rarely errs in conveying whether an individual is telling the truth. Just as important, he should reflect and look back on how, as attorney general and governor, he has treated people, particularly legislators who would feel threatened by a governor who reminded them he was a steamroller, expletive deleted, prepared to roll over them. He should acknowledge with regret that many see him as a bully. Those people now enjoy watching the governor on the defense and are working behind the scenes to help bring him down.

I believe that we, the people of the State of New York, are lucky to have Eliot Spitzer as our Governor. Albany is a political sewer, a kind of Augean stables, secure in the knowledge that it has avoided reform for years, its leaders free to use their power for selfish purposes, rather than serving the public interest. Along comes a gifted young man, Eliot Spitzer, who wants to change things and make Albany do the people's business. His statements at times have been overly rash and unnecessarily combative.

But let's not destroy our only chance in years of changing government for the better by going down the road of endless investigations, such as Whitewater in Washington which cost millions of dollars, divided the country, and at its conclusion produced nothing worthwhile. Let the governor tell us what happened under oath before the State Ethics Commission and close the book on this matter. I have no doubt he has already been chastened and will undoubtedly use the experience and opportunity to change things in Albany for the betterment of all of us. Eliot Spitzer deserves a second chance. If he sinned it was not venal, but rather the result of impatience and a desire to improve the governance of this once-great state. If he did not before, he realizes now that we are all flawed and fragile vessels.

Ed Koch is the former Mayor of New York City.

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