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All the Governor’s Men

Aides like Darren Dopp would have walked through fire for Eliot Spitzer. And in a sense, Dopp has.

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Illustration by Zohar Lazar  

On a Sunday afternoon last July, Peter Pope, David Nocenti, and Sean Patrick Maloney, three of Eliot Spitzer’s top advisers, met in Nocenti’s office with Darren Dopp, who at the time was Spitzer’s communications director. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was on the verge of releasing his report about Troopergate; Cuomo was expected to charge that the governor’s office had directed the state police to monitor Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s travel. “Someone’s got to take the hit,” Dopp’s colleagues told him. “Take the hit and it goes away.”

“How big a hit?” Dopp wanted to know.

“Maybe there’ll be a note in your file,” one of the aides said. “Maybe you’ll be suspended for a day or two.”

Dopp insisted to his colleagues that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d wanted Bruno to go down as much as anyone, and he’d spearheaded the effort. But he claimed that the press had requested the information. And Bruno’s use of public aircraft was questionable. Dopp was sure he could explain everything to Cuomo, whom he’d known for years. Cuomo wanted his testimony. “Let me talk to him,” Dopp pleaded.

Dopp was overtired, on the verge of freaking out. His own lawyer didn’t want him to testify.

“It’s too late [to testify],” Dopp was told. “This is the only thing we can do.” Cuomo wanted people punished.

Dopp shuddered. He’d been in charge of gathering the information, but everyone knew that. And releasing it had been a group decision. “We’d discussed this internally ad nauseam,” Dopp told a friend.

Finally Dopp asked, “Is this what Eliot wants?”

“We don’t have a choice,” he was told. So Dopp signed a seemingly innocuous statement reworked by his lawyer: “I regret any appearance of impropriety that was created by the manner in which this information”—on Bruno’s travel—“was sought and obtained.”

Cuomo’s report was issued the following day, July 23. His investigation found no criminal wrongdoing, but it blasted Dopp—he used press inquiries as a “pretext” for getting Bruno—as well as the state police. The police didn’t spy, but they’d come close. Cuomo clearly believed top Spitzer aides were involved in a dirty trick to embarrass Bruno, though he was easy on Spitzer himself.

Speaking to reporters later that day, Spitzer professed dismay at the behavior of some in his administration. The matter had been “grossly mishandled” by his staff, he said. He decried “lapses in judgment.” That same day, Spitzer suspended Dopp indefinitely, and disciplined a state police official. Cuomo wanted that, and more. “They threw Dopp under the bus,” says a person who reviewed the record.

Cuomo called Dopp at home, hoping to persuade him to testify. “They’re shooting you in the back” was his message.

Dopp was heartbroken. He’d been one of Spitzer’s closest aides—he’d worked as communications director during Spitzer’s two terms as attorney general. Yet he’d learned about his suspension from blogs. “Nine years with him,” Dopp told his wife, “and not even a phone call.” Dopp spent a lot of time in bed, lying there and thinking. “He loved Eliot,” says Dopp’s wife, Sandy. “He thought Eliot was like his brother.” Perhaps Dopp sentimentalized his experience, the more so as it unraveled. Dopp knew how politics went; he’d seen his share of political hits. “But it was me. How could this happen to me?”

Only after Spitzer’s downfall would Dopp come to an answer. “It was part of Eliot’s madness,” he told a friend.

When Spitzer resigned on March 12, after revelations that he’d visited a prostitute, even those closest to him were shocked. Yet before that stunning scandal, some insiders had become disillusioned, and Dopp’s fate was one cause. Spitzer had presented himself as trustworthy and righteous. He’d created a merry band of civil servant–warriors, then told them to “do good,” as they would say without irony. To some, letting Dopp fall seemed deeply cynical—politics as usual.

Increasingly for Spitzer, there wasn’t any kind of politics that worked well. As the fourteen months of his administration wore on, the governor became increasingly frustrated. He couldn’t get things done, and turned gloomy, hostile. Months ago, an aide had counseled patience and compromise to Boss, as Dopp called Spitzer. “Fuck it,” said Spitzer. “I’m going to fight them on everything.” For Spitzer, government became a kind of Alamo, a last stand against the soft and corrupt—a category that expanded to include not only Bruno but most everyone outside the executive chamber. Failure incensed Spitzer, and it also began to take an unmistakable toll. Among friends, personality breakdown would be the most common explanation for Spitzer’s fall.

For Dopp, the attorney general’s report was only the beginning of his troubles. Taking the hit, it turned out, hadn’t assuaged Bruno or the media. Cuomo, too, still had questions. He called Dopp at home, hoping to reopen the investigation. He still wanted Dopp’s testimony. “They’re shooting you in the back” was the message he transmitted through Dopp’s wife.


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