Lessons from Spitzer's fall

The system set up to catch financial misdeeds by politicians works.

Political scandals may be titillating but in the lurid details and political meltdown of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, one thing must not be forgotten: He was collared by a law enforcement system that can catch even its own.

Mr. Spitzer knew the system well, first as an elected attorney general and then as governor, rising to fame as a reforming defender of law. That reputation adds to the heightened sense of hypocrisy and Shakespearean irony over official accusations of his regular use of a high-priced prostitution ring (across state lines) and his financial sleight-of-hand to pay for it.

His decision Wednesday to resign came as he faced an uncertain political and legal future. One poll showed that 70 percent of his constituents said he should step down. His ability to govern effectively seemed improbable, especially with criminal charges looming.

The governor's lapse of probity is not only hurtful to his family, but to the public trust he once held. Beyond being the bullying crusader who unearthed unlawful actions on Wall Street, he also worked to shut down the exploitative sex-trade industry. Now his private actions belie that public image, and hurt the causes he championed.

The public can be grateful that a system set up to catch financial misdoings of those entrusted with high offices apparently works. Perhaps this will serve as a cautionary tale for other officeholders.

According to press reports, the IRS and FBI only noticed Governor Spitzer's activities because of the suspicious movement of money as he carefully moved thousands of dollars between accounts to pay for his liaisons. But because he is a prominent government official, he is considered a Politically Exposed Person, or PEP. His accounts were subject to special government monitoring for financial misdoing.

His banks reported unusual activities involving thousands of dollars in his accounts, which led to the investigation. Because Spitzer allegedly sent money to a shell company, a front used to hide the workings of the prostitution ring, he came under suspicion that he might be trying to hid ill-gotten gains.

What this dismal mess shouldn't do is contribute in any way to a view of prostitution as something glamorous. The sex-for-hire industry is a sordid one that exploits and degrades all involved, women and men, and most contemptibly harms girls and boys as well. It's a crude and violent world that Spitzer himself once called "modern-day slavery," and hardly some fantasyland.

While this Theater of the Absurd plays out, the public should not let it dampen the renewed enthusiasm for politics as seen in the presidential campaign. Voters are turning out in record numbers in primaries and caucuses. With the White House incumbent leaving office, it is a rare opportunity for Americans to make important choices about the direction of their country. The enthusiasm displayed so far is invigorating to a democracy that relies on rule of law to sustain it.

Adherence to law and democracy go hand in hand. The low-level workers in law enforcement have once against reached into the political hierarchy to expose an individual's actions.

This is democracy's message: That those who serve the public must realize that they are not above the law themselves.

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