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New York's one-man scourge of Wall Street

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2003


In the early weeks of 2001, when Eliot Spitzer first began investigating corruption on Wall Street, most Main Street investors still believed Internet stocks could make them rich, and the names Enron and ImClone might as well have been monsters from a sci-fi flick.

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Since then, of course, each has become a buzzword for the financial house of cards the country's seen topple in the past two years, and Mr. Spitzer, the Democratic attorney general of New York, has emerged as the foremost scourge of Wall Street power brokers. Armed with a devastating array of evidence from his investigations, he's uncovered widespread fraud by stock analysts, illegal trading, and an ocean of conflict of interest in a realm that had been celebrated during the 1990s' bull market as the Great American Money Machine.

Nor is Wall Street a big enough target for a state attorney general who has gained more national visibility than most governors. He has also gone up against power plants, health-maintenance organizations, and Microsoft Corp.

Spitzer's successes have made him something of a folk hero, not only to the thousands of small investors who saw their 401(k) savings vaporize after the Internet bubble burst, but also to a public grown increasingly cynical after stories of corporate malfeasance continue to bombard the news. Indeed, as national headlines trumpet Spitzer as "Crusader of the Year" or "Sheriff of Wall Street," he has come to be seen as a rising political star.

"He's one of the few attorneys general who make people wonder whether this person may be presidential timber down the road," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. For now, most expect Spitzer to run for governor of New York in 2006. "The chatter around the capitol corridors is that that's likely to be his next move."

Spitzer, of course, is coy about such notions. Yet in many ways, his rise has followed a classic populist template in American politics. During times of scandal and corruption, an earnest political neophyte, replete with passionate ideals, takes on established interests and captures the adoration of a public feeling powerless. Yet, for every Mr. Smith going to Washington, there's also a Willie Stark, and the battle against corruption often mingles with shrewd calculation and vaunting personal ambition.

Though he grew up in a well-to-do home in the Bronx, went to Princeton and Harvard Law School, he can look the part of a populist scourge. With a balding pate, sharp elbows, and a slight forward lean, he has the gangling and loping gait of a dairy farmer rather than a Manhattan attorney. When he sits with a pensive frown, his jug-handle ears, jutting chin, and five-o'clock shadow can make him look like the classic hobo clown. Yet when he furrows his eyebrows and directs his fierce blue eyes, he can have the angular expression of a bird of prey. Still, his atypical good looks led New York Magazine to dub him one of the 50 sexiest New Yorkers.

From the time Spitzer first took the attorney general's seat in 1999 - it was his first elected office, won after a bruising electoral battle and weeks of recounts - he has carefully crafted an image as "the people's lawyer." His tenure has been characterized by other bold, sweeping initiatives: He sued Midwest power plants for their pollution wafting into New York, took on gunmakers that supplied retailers conducting illegal cross-state sales, and won millions of dollars in back pay for subminimum wage workers at fruit markets. And while his media savvy has invited its own share of cynics, even some of his foes can admire his Wall Street exploits.

"It was like hitting a political goldmine," says Mike Paul, a former communications official in the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "My overall opinion of Spitzer, even as someone working as a Republican in past positions, is this guy's got great positioning right now. And it's not based on spin, it's based on hard work, by hiring people into various divisions ... that have an expertise."