Attorney General Spitzer turned around faster than a whirling dervish on figure skates when he fetched up in Albany yesterday and called for the release of a stunning set of documents unearthed by the Wall Street Journal in his case against the former leaders of the New York Stock Exchange, Kenneth Langone and Richard Grasso. The existence of the documents was reported Tuesday in a devastating dispatch by the Journal's Kimberley Strassel, who wrote that Mr. Spitzer had tacitly backed an effort by the exchange to keep the documents confidential. The Journal dispatch suggested that Mr. Spitzer was politically motivated in suing a former director of the New York Stock Exchange, Kenneth Langone, and its former chairman, Richard Grasso, over Mr. Grasso's $187 million in compensation, while failing to take action against one of the exchange's directors who helped award Mr. Grasso his pay, H. Carl McCall, a fellow Democratic political figure.
We're less invested in the outcome of the feud between Messrs. Spitzer and Grasso than the Journal. It seems to us that it ought to be up to the members of the exchange -- and themselves alone - what they pay their president. But we suppose one could argue that if the members of the exchange wanted Mr. Spitzer or his ilk to stay out of their business, they could have incorporated in some form other than a not-for-profit institution over which the state attorney general has some regulatory authority. That said, Mr. Spitzer's high-profile, holier-than-thou approach to business regulation appears to be losing steam with every passing week, just in time to heat up the race for governor.
A jury on Thursday dealt Mr. Spitzer a stunning setback in rejecting his case against a Bank of America broker. This after a season of financial filings by Mr. Spitzer, which we wrote about on Friday, showing that he's been pursuing a practice of fund-raising in enormous chunks of campaign cash -- tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases -- from the interests he is regulating. Mr. Spitzer even raked in a $10,000 campaign contribution from a law firm suing AIG while the attorney general was pursuing a case against the company's former chief executive, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg. On Sunday, the New York Post weighed in with an editorial suggesting, as we did on Friday, that Mr. Spitzer should either stop taking this kind of lucre or step down from his regulatory role.
This is the context in which Mr. Spitzer called his press conference in Albany (for a group of handpicked reporters that did not include the Sun) to call for improvements in ethics in Albany. "Spitzer chides Legislature, Pataki for dropping ball on reform," was the Associated Press's headline on the story about the press conference. One of the legal changes proposed by Mr. Spitzer, according to the AP, was an "absolute ban" on lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers. There's already a ban on gifts of more than $75 in value, so Mr. Spitzer is buckling down on things like a Christmastime bottle of whiskey or a lobbyist picking up the tab for a breakfast with a lawmaker.
Talk about your diversionary rumpus. It seems that Mr. Spitzer would have us believe that, when he regulates the financial industry, he is unswayed by $62,407 in campaign contributions from a hedge-fund operator and his wife. Yet he'd prevent lawmakers from accepting a $10 plate of scrambled eggs from a lobbyist. He'd have us believe that his position on tort reform is unswayed by the more than $135,000 in campaign contributions he has received from plaintiff's-side trial lawyers. Yet he'd prevent lawmakers from accepting a $10 bottle of wine from a lobbyist.
It's hard to tell whether Mr. Spitzer's approach to ethics is a farce or a tragedy. He is, after all, a politician of enormous intelligence and, among Democrats at least, great promise. Many of his successes - Wall Street stock research, insurance-industry bid-rigging, and late trading by big account-holders in mutual funds - were cases involving serious issues. Some of his settlements were questionable and imposed solutions by administrative fiat or consent decree rather than by acts of the Legislature. When he actually went to trial on late trading, he got his head handed to him. But as the Weekly Standard pointed out in a recent cover story on Mr. Spitzer, many of his actions are aimed at protecting the sort of small investors who, as the new "investor class," include capitalist-oriented Republican types.
For all that, Mr. Spitzer's campaign to clean up Albany the way he cleaned up Wall Street can only be undermined by the sort of fund-raising that has been the topic of press reports in recent weeks. And by cutting slack, if that's what he turns out to have done, for a political crony like Mr. McCall. Mr. Spitzer can keep talking about the problem of gifts under $75, or he can forthrightly address the issue of his own receipts of contributions amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars from industries he regulates. It's clear which he'd prefer. Once a candidate emerges to run against him for governor, it will start to become harder for him to dictate the terms of the ethics debate.