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The Governor and the Darkness

Sex wasn’t the only clandestine activity Eliot Spitzer loved.


A visual interpretation of the governor’s very bad week by Patrick Thomas, left, and Rodrigo Corral, right.   

He loved the black-bag job. Eliot Spitzer was a 30-year-old assistant district attorney in Manhattan charged with investigating mob control of trucking in the garment district when he found joy in the undercover. Spying on the Gambinos was a world away from Riverdale, where he’d grown up the son of a real-estate mogul, and from Princeton and Harvard Law School, where he’d been at the top of his classes. Spitzer’s father had driven all three of his children to push their intellectual limits, but figuring out a way to break into the Gambinos’ West 35th Street office to plant a bug—by using Con Ed trucks on a phony repair call, by picking locks, switching off alarms, and evading motion detectors—then listening to hundreds of hours of tapes of Tommy and Joe Gambino cursing and joking and scheming? That was the life.

It was all in service of a noble cause, of course, like ending the “mob tax” on clothing manufacturers. The Gambinos were clearly evil. So when setting up a sham store on Chrystie Street and a bogus trucking company didn’t produce enough evidence, Spitzer pushed the plot to install a listening device. And when racketeering laws didn’t seem to fit, he found a creative way to use the antitrust statute. The trial was fun, too. But the real thrill was in the cloak-and-dagger. The whole investigation took three years, and every chance he got, he’d slip on the headphones and listen to tapes from the wire. Ever since, Eliot Spitzer has been hooked on the clandestine.

She couldn’t stop crying. Barely one day earlier, the man she’d been married to for two decades, the father of her three daughters, had stunned Silda Wall Spitzer with the revelation that he’d been sleeping with prostitutes. Now here they were, on a cloudy Monday afternoon, in a warren of state-government offices on the 39th floor of a midtown building, among shell-shocked and tearful staffers. The New York Times had just broken the story on its Website.

She hated what he’d done, hated the idea of being seen as a “stand by your man” wife. But maybe appearing together today would somehow help their daughters through this nightmare. And Silda, an experienced lawyer herself, had somehow been able to think objectively about what her absence might say to federal prosecutors. She and Lloyd Constantine, a longtime Spitzer confidant, were nearly alone in arguing against an immediate resignation; Eliot, recognizing he was a political dead man, had wanted to do it first thing Monday morning. So they’d settled on a press conference in which Spitzer would apologize, admit nothing, and cling to his job. It was scheduled to begin at 2:15. Nearly an hour later, Silda wasn’t ready for an excruciating appearance in front of the press.

Spitzer stood still, not trying to console her or to make excuses. He was silent, his head down. He would wait as long as Silda needed. Spitzer dabbed his eyes. Silda slowly composed herself. Then they walked through the door, into the glare of TV lights, for the beginning of the end. Eliot Spitzer’s secret was out.

Sifting for clues in the wreckage of Eliot Spitzer’s stunning, sordid prostitution scandal—and trying to make sense of what no doubt will always contain a large element of pure insanity—that old mob investigation offers a vivid glimpse into the suddenly ex-governor’s psyche. “I don’t think [the prostitutes] were so much about the sex,” says one man who worked closely with Spitzer for many years and thought he knew him well. “There’s definitely an element of self-destruction. There’s complete ‘the rules don’t apply to me’; it’s very arrogant. But Eliot loves covert ops. He always has. The most animated or excited he ever gets is when he talks about running the sting on the Gambino family.”

Plenty of Spitzer targets, particularly in the financial industry, have long complained that he was a hypocrite whose ethical righteousness didn’t apply to his own tactics and behavior. As long as Spitzer was wearing the white hat, though, as long as he appeared to be crusading on behalf of wronged mutual-fund investors or exploited deli workers, much of the public and the media were happy to look the other way. Spitzer’s combative style hit a wall when he arrived in Albany, though, and when he resorted to stealth tactics, trying to embarrass State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno over the use of a state helicopter, Bruno proved craftier and less easily intimidated than Spitzer’s Wall Street adversaries. The ironies are obvious and abundant. Covert operations made him, and they destroyed him. Humiliation was his weapon and his punishment. Last week no one even attempted to defend him.


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