By Keith B. Richburg and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 13, 2008
NEW YORK, March 12 -- New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, a rising Democratic Party star who won election 16 months ago as a crusading reformer against corruption, announced his resignation Wednesday after being ensnared in a federal investigation that exposed his double life as a longtime regular client of high-priced prostitutes.
With his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, at his side, Spitzer apologized for what he said were "my private failings" and said he is stepping down so as not to "disrupt the people's work." He said the resignation will take effect Monday, to give his successor, Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson, time to make a smooth transition.
Spitzer's resignation still leaves him in legal limbo, with prosecutors having given no public signals whether he might face prosecution. Three high-profile criminal defense lawyers who accompanied Spitzer to his Manhattan office, where he made his announcement, are trying to resolve his legal predicament with federal prosecutors.
Though Spitzer's legal troubles appear likely to drag on, there was a palpable sense of relief in Albany, the capital, and across the state that the tawdry sex scandal of the previous 48 hours -- being played out in graphic detail in the pages of the local tabloid newspapers -- was becoming his private legal matter and that the state could return to its normal business. Legislators of both parties rushed to praise Paterson, 53, who will become New York's first African American governor and the first governor of any state who is legally blind.
"When one door closes, another door opens up," said state Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco (R), who had threatened to lead impeachment proceedings against the governor had he tried to stay in his job. "We've gotten this distraction over with, which had really gridlocked everything. We're excited about the potential of our new governor."
Spitzer's fall was all the more stunning because he had been elected in November 2006 with 69 percent of the vote, the most ever in a New York gubernatorial race, and some Democrats even said he could possibly become the country's first Jewish president.
But his life and career began unraveling last week, when federal agents, acting on wiretaps, busted a high-class New Jersey-based prostitution ring, called Emperors Club VIP, and arrested four people. The criminal complaint listed an anonymous "Client 9," who was heard calling the escort service to arrange for a call girl named "Kristen" to meet him for a Feb. 13 tryst at Washington's Mayflower Hotel.
The client allegedly paid for the woman's train fare from New York to Washington and $4,300 for a two-hour session. Law enforcement sources confirmed this week that Client 9 was Spitzer.
Sources familiar with the case said Spitzer remains under investigation for possible violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits interstate travel "for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery" or for other "immoral purposes."
He could also face conspiracy and money-laundering charges, the sources said. A more streamlined case could involve charges that Spitzer structured his payments to the escort service in a way that was designed to evade bank-reporting requirements.
Negotiations between Spitzer and prosecutors are probably complicated by many variables, including his desire to avoid losing his license to practice law, said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers.
Under New York law, lawyers are automatically disbarred once they are convicted of a felony in state court. But if they plead guilty in federal court to what state law considers a misdemeanor, lawyers are subject to a range of lesser sanctions including public reprimand and suspension.
Even if Spitzer avoids criminal charges, state legislators may still inquire into what they said are several unanswered questions and possible ethics violations. Those include whether Spitzer used public funds to travel out of the state for meetings with prostitutes under the guise of government business, and whether the state troopers who provide his protection were aware of his trysts.
"If he broke the law, you have to pay the piper," said state Sen. Martin J. Golden (R), a former New York City police officer. He said legislators "will want to see the investigation completed."
Other state lawmakers seemed reluctant to pursue the matter and hoped the affair could be put to rest. "He's suffered enough embarrassment," said Harlem Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright (D).
There are also questions about the identities of the other wealthy clients of the Emperors Club VIP. The criminal complaint unsealed last week made reference to 10 clients without naming them; only Spitzer has been identified as Client 9.
Many here are now wondering: Who are the other clients? It is a guessing game that has echoes of the Washington case of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, called "D.C. Madam," whose extensive client list included Randall L. Tobias, who abruptly resigned as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has remained in his job.
News outlets are also hunting for other prostitutes who may have had sex with the governor. One, called "Sienna," made that claim in interviews with ABC News and the New York Post.
Spitzer's reputation during his years as attorney general was that of an incorruptible "Mr. Clean," whom tabloids here had dubbed both "Eliot Ness," after the fabled federal agent who brought down Al Capone, and "the Sheriff of Wall Street," for his public crusades against white-collar crime and insider trading. He also led two high-profile prosecutions of prostitution rings.
With Spitzer's background in law enforcement, it was surprising to many that he was tripped up by engaging in suspicious financial transactions to allegedly pay the escort service, which were reported to federal authorities by his bank.
In several hot spots including New York, FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents work alongside prosecutors to review questionable financial transactions to determine whether money laundering, bribery or extortion cases will result.
Guy Singer, a former Justice Department prosecutor who handled public corruption cases, said "it is completely appropriate for the government to pay close attention" not only to elected officials but also to judges and police officers who occupy positions of public trust.
When Spitzer ran for governor he promised to focus on those who abuse the public trust, pledging to root out corruption in Albany and change the state capital's way of doing business.
Echoing the feeling of many in New York and beyond who saw mostly tragedy in Spitzer's rapid and stunning fall, Spitzer said: "I look at my time as governor with a sense of what might have been."
Johnson reported from Washington. Staff writer Susan Schmidt and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.