Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Spitzer Fallout, So Far

So much for the slow dog days of summer. From YouTube’s laughs to Obama’s gaffes, from Alberto Gonzales’s stonewall to Robert Mueller’s tell-all, it was a huge week for the blogosphere. But among all the mayhem, one story that readers outside New York may not have followed closely was the travails of our governor, Eliot Spitzer, whose aides, it turns out, attempted to strongarm the state police into helping them build a case against the State Senate leader, Joe Bruno, for unauthorized use of state aircraft.

A local story? To some extent — but given New York’s prominent place among the states and Spitzer’s seemingly limitless ambition, it’s of national significance, and bloggers everywhere are tuning in with interest. One of the best sources of inside details has been John Riley at Newsday’s Spin Cycle blog, who now is questioning the conclusion of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s otherwise withering report on the Spitzer administration’s action that the governor’s aides didn’t break the law:

We’re hearing from some people that it might not be “unauthorized” for the state police superintendent to gin up a report on orders — the superintendent can “authorize” what he wants as long as it’s not illegal — and that the “benefit” would have to be personal to the person who engaged in the act. That might be a problem since technically any political benefit would go to Spitzer. But, on the other side: How could it be “authorized” for Spitzer’s aides to tell the state police that there was a FOIA request for certain documents when there wasn’t? And what if Spitzer told his aides to execute the plan, and was behind the whole thing? Then wouldn’t he personally reap the “political” benefit?

Likewise, law professor Stephen Gillers of New York University told The Times he feels “that the attorney general was premature in his conclusions. He cited one particular section of the state penal law, Official Misconduct, which says that a public servant is guilty of a misdemeanor if he commits an ‘unauthorized exercise of his official functions’ with the ‘intent to obtain a benefit or deprive another person of a benefit.’ ‘It’s certainly sufficient to warrant investigation and prevent the attorney general from saying no laws were broken without further investigation,’ Professor Gillers said.”

In any case, the voters seem to think there are unanswered questions. “Eight in 10 voters said they think the New York governor should testify in any further investigation into an alleged plot by his aides to use state police against Republican Senate leader Joseph Bruno,” according to a new WNBC/Marist College poll. “Half of New Yorkers also suspect Gov. Eliot Spitzer knew more than he has said about the plot.”

Matt Yglesias of The Atlantic, viewing things from Washington, feels that Cuomo is in the right, if for all the wrong reasons:

“But Cuomo, rather than acting as first and foremost a loyal Democrat and seeking zealously to shield Spitzer from scrutiny, is acting first and foremost as a selfish, ambitious politician happy to embarrass both Spitzer and Bruno in hopes of himself becoming governor some day,” Yglesias laments.

“Much of the crisis in Washington today boils down precisely to the congressional GOP’s unwillingness not so much to ‘do the right thing’ but unwillingness to even be petty and power-hungry; their decision to see their job as backstopping the president come what may rather than to jealously horde the powers of their own offices.”

Investor’s Business Daily’s editorial writers are wallowing in the governor’s mistakes: “New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the one president ever forced to resign seem to have a lot in common. But at least Nixon waited a little while before using the tools of state against his political enemies.”

And U.C.L.A. law professor Stephen Bainbridge has some rhetorical fun: “Can you imagine what Attorney General Spitzer would have done to a corporate CEO who told two of his executives to stonewall and who tried to fight off an investigation?”

Republican New York City Councilman Jimmy Oddo, however, tells the New York Observer’s Politicker blog that the G.O.P. should play this carefully. “I just think that my party needs to play this one smart and not to overplay their hand,” Oddo informs Azi Paybarah. “With some prodding, I would continue to allow the governor to inflict these wounds to himself. If we overplay our hand, the public will say, ‘a pox on both your houses.’… If our focus is 100 percent on this, and we forget to do policy, it’ll come back and recoil. We should be doing a nice mix of policy and substance as you help the governor self destruct,” he said.

Well, the next step seems to be the governor’s, and a little birdie informs me that he’s penned an Op-Ed piece for Sunday’s Times that offers an apology and a call for voters to move on. I think we’d all admit that an apology from Eliot Spitzer is a pretty remarkable thing; but then, New Yorkers being New Yorkers, how many really think this is all behind us?

Tobin Harshaw

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