A man I like a lot -- Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer -- is in the middle of his own version of Plamegate, complete with accusations that he sought to discredit a political rival by misusing government resources, and Spitzer's vow to claim a state version of executive privilege in the burgeoning confrontation with Republican state senators.
A scathing report issued on Monday by Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo concluded that the governor’s staff had broken no laws but had misused the State Police to gather information about Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader, in an effort to plant a negative story about him.
Basically the governor's staff had Bruno's state police escorts document Bruno's whereabouts when they accompanied him on "official" trips, apparently hoping to show that he was engaging in personal travel or junkets on the taxpayer's dime. The report specifically cleared Bruno (right) of that charge, saying each of his trips had at least some legitimate legislative business attached to it.
Cuomo, by the way, is another Democrat -- the son of former New York Gov. Mario "Hamlet" Cuomo. And the report was endorsed by Spitzer's Inspector General, Kristine Hamann.
Spitzer says he was unaware of the activity, and his response to it was a lesson in the proper way to handle such things:
The governor said he accepted the findings, saying his administration had “grossly mishandled” the situation.
“As governor, I am accountable for what goes on in the executive branch and I accept responsibility for the actions of my office,” he said at a press conference this morning, with many of his staff members looking on somber and staggered.
“I apologized to Senator Bruno and I did so personally this morning,” he added. “In addition, I apologized to the men and women of the State Police, and to acting Superintendent Preston Felton personally for allowing this esteemed institution to be drawn into this matter.”
“They should never have been put into this situation. Finally, I apologize to the people of the State of New York for having allowed this matter to have become a distraction from the vital work at hand.”
Darren Dopp, Mr. Spitzer’s communications director and one of his closest aides, was put on indefinite unpaid leave of at least 30 days. William Howard, the Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security, will be reassigned to a post outside the governor’s office.
All well and good, but two of Spitzer's aides refused to cooperate with the Cuomo investigation, and Republicans in the state Senate -- led by an incensed Bruno -- are pushing an investigation to find out if Spitzer was, indeed, unaware of what his staff was up to. They're talking about subpoenaing everyone, including Spitzer.
Spitzer, for his part, has vowed to resist any effort to compel his aides to testify.
Much as I like Spitzer, he's in the wrong here. Legally he's got the same legitimate point as Bush does on executive privilege, with similar strengths and weaknesses (although New York law has generally been hostile to executive privilege claims). But as in the Plame and prosecutor inquiries a legitimate question has been raised, and it deserves to be answered.
Spitzer can point to one difference: unlike with Plame and the prosecutors, Cuomo made a concrete determination that no laws were broken. That's not enough to get off the hook, however. As in the prosecutor case this is less an investigation of illegality than an investigation of impropriety, which falls into the legislative branch's oversight capacity. Spitzer should order his aides to talk. If doing so violates their Fifth Amendment rights, they should invoke the Fifth and let the Senate grant them immunity in exchange for their testimony.
Republicans, for their part, are overreaching, moving to subpoenas as a first resort and casting an overly broad net. Subpoenas should be narrowly tailored and a last resort, or else they risk giving Spitzer a legitimate executive privilege defense.
I'm disappointed in Spitzer, and hope he truly was uninvolved. I also hope this doesn't derail his policy initiatives. But regardless of the political cost, Spitzer needs to come clean. Doing the right thing aside, if he doesn't put this to rest quickly it will turn into a drawn-out battle with the legislature, which surely will derail his initiatives just as the Gonzales scandals have harmed Bush and the Justice Department.
Cuomo, Bruno, Spitzer, New York, politics, midtopia