Ed Koch: Hail to the sheriff

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After his election as governor, Eliot Spitzer clearly believed he had an enormous mandate for change, as 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 say, “three to tango.” 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 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.

All of this hubris led to the Greek tragedy that is now 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.”

Governor Spitzer has 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. Eliot was interviewed by Times reporter Patrick Healy and “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 state police assembled the information, apparently at the request of Mr. Dopp. 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.

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 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 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 did not before, he realizes now that we are all flawed and fragile vessels.

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