Jay Ambrose: Bow and scrape to Spitzer?

Eliot Spitzer has now been elected governor of New York, and the question is whether he will continue helping fats cats get fatter at public expense and continue his friendship with campaign donors being investigated for criminal conduct.

But wait a minute, you say. Isn’t Spitzer the heroic New York attorney general who made life miserable for Wall Street cheats? Isn’t he the tough-minded, ultrasmart official who insists the capitalist game be played by the rules and thereby makes rapscallion CEOs shiver at the mere mention of his name while average folks are rescued from their wily ways?

You might think so, at least from some adulatory reporting that assumes accusations made through the press are always tantamount to legal guilt and that, when corporations fire top executives and pony up huge fines, they are admitting they did something awful.

In fact, as critics of Spitzer have argued, some of the companies may have been aiming more than anything to escape ruinous publicity and the disadvantages of tangling with a bully equipped with a progressive-era law that simply skips over many of the usual safeguards against oppressive state powers.

Take on this man in court, and you may win a trial, but your legal expenses will be enormous, and your stock may continue to plummet, damaging your company, costing thousands their jobs and causing thousands of average middle-class stockholders to suffer disastrous losses. Better to bow and scrape and see what you can salvage.

This other image of Spitzer is available to us because not all the press has viewed him as the heavyweight champ of probity, least of all the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, treated by Spitzer in his gubernatorial campaign as a foremost antagonist.

Articles there as well as in The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New York Post and elsewhere tell of a threatening, tantrumlike style and a notion of the free market that can see it as an attorney general’s role to assure consumers get a very nice rate of return on investments: Because H&R Block had higher fees than Spitzer liked in individual retirement accounts available to people with little wealth, he filed a fraud complaint in a state court.

News reports, commentaries and analyses tell as well of how Spitzer as a sitting attorney general accepted campaign contributions from parties that could be directly affected by his law-enforcement decisions. One writer has wondered after looking at accounts of who has felt his wrath and who has escaped it whether he is just another politician “rewarding his friends, and punishing his enemies.”

This reformer who has shown no taste for reforming tort-law abuses went along with $13,000-an-hour public recompense for lawyers in a New York tobacco settlement, it has been reported. Among those giving money to his campaigns are, naturally enough, trial lawyers, including partners in a major class-action law firm under intense scrutiny by the Justice Department.

It’s worthwhile for readers to explore additional material and to keep a close eye on this governor-elect who could have an impact on the lives of those outside of New York in the years to come, and those who never had any interest in any of the companies he hurt as attorney general. There’s reason to wonder whether Spitzer’s ambitions extend — perhaps, not unrealistically — to occupying the White House someday.

Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com

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