BY ANDREA SAENZ
A stellar career in law and politics came apart this week when New York governor Eliot Spitzer ’84 resigned from office after evidence of his patronage of an international prostitution ring came to light Monday.
“I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong,” Spitzer said at a brief press conference Tuesday.
“I apologize first and most importantly to my family. I apologize to the public to whom I promised better.”
“I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself. I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family.”
Spitzer kept a low profile the rest of Tuesday as he considered whether to resign. Media reported widely the details of the alleged conduct, which came to light when the governor was intercepted on a federal wiretap. They included several meetings with prostitutes, tens of thousands of dollars in payments, and paying for a call girl to travel from New York to Washington D.C. There were also questions about improper money transfers that might constitute the crime of structuring. Facing the threat of impeachment from state legislature Republicans, as well as many Democrats, Spitzer submitted his resignation on Wednesday, to be effective Monday, March 17th.
“The remorse I feel will always be with me,” said Spitzer. “To every New Yorker, and to all those who believed in what I tried to stand for, I sincerely apologize.
“Throughout the course of my public career, I have insisted, I believe correctly, that people, regardless of their position of power, take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself.”
While at HLS, Spitzer was an editor on the Harvard Law Review and a research assistant for Professor Alan Dershowitz. He told an alumni magazine that his favorite classes were a seminar on international treaties and arms control with Prof. Abram Chayes and Prof. Al Warren’s popular tax class. It was at Harvard that Spitzer met classmate Silda Wall ’84, who he married in 1987.
After graduating from law school, Spitzer clerked for Judge Robert W. Sweet, of the Southern District of New York. Afterward, he joined the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison, where he spent two years, and then joined the Manhattan district attorney’s office. He rose to become chief of the Labor Racketeering Unit, successfully prosecuting organized crime and political corruption cases. He later worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and was a partner at Constantine & Partners before becoming New York’s Attorney General. When Spitzer became governor, Judge Sweet administered his oath of office. Spitzer maintained ties to HLS, including with friend Dean Elena Kagan, who was a fellow member of the Princeton University class of 1981.
Professor Dershowitz appeared on several news programs this week offering a spirited defense of his former student.
“I feel terrible for Eliot and his family,” said Dershowitz. “But I feel that this was a story that we have to put in perspective. Big deal. Married man goes to prostitute. In Europe, this wouldn’t even make the back pages of the newspaper.”
“Men don’t use their brains when it comes to something like this,” said Dershowitz. “They think with a different part of their body and that part of the body, the level of brains, there are no relationship to the level of brains in the skull, unfortunately. And when people think with that organ of the body, they make these kind of really, really terrible mistakes.”
“The public aspect of it is relatively minimal. And I think the public will understand that you don’t judge a political figure by one sexual mistake in his life . . . There’s no question that he’s tarnished.”
Dershowitz’s comments fit in with a Latin phrase he commonly tells his 1L Criminal Law class, Penis erectus non habet conscientiam, or “an erect penis has no conscience.”
The strong surprise many felt about Spitzer’s sexual indiscretions was a result of Spitzer’s reputation as a crusader against corruption and unethical behavior. As attorney general, he went after Wall Street misconduct, and even prosecuted prostitution rings, most notably a 16-person operation on Staten Island. Even Dershowitz admitted that there was a “cycle of hypocrisy” in politics that Spitzer had become a part ot.
Spitzer’s classmates had also considered the governor a model of ethics. Reporter Jeffrey Toobin ’86 commented that he always knew Spitzer as a “straight arrow.” In an alumni magazine article several years ago, “Mad Money” host and longtime friend Jim Cramer ’84 said, “He’s a great dad and a great husband, as well as being right on every issue. Eliot has a sense of outrage about what other people see as business as usual. He has a finely calibrated sense of fairness and honesty, and he understands what corruption means.”
Silda Wall Spitzer had an impressive career of her own before her husband became a national political figure. At HLS, she was a member of the International Law Journal, the Women’s Law Association, and the Board of Student Advisors. After graduation, she joined Skadden, Arps, specializing in mergers, acquisitions, and corporate finance, working as much as 3,200 hours a year and pulling all-nighters when she would nap under a conference room table because the lights in the firm were kept on permanently. She later worked as in-house counsel for Chase Manhattan Bank before leaving the private sector in 1994 to spend more time with the couple’s three daughters. She created a philanthropic foundation, Children for Children, and has done significant work in the nonprofit sector.
Silda Wall Spitzer was scheduled to be at HLS on Friday for a career panel at the first annual Celebration of Public Interest. The Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising confirmed Tuesday that she had canceled her appearance.