On March 30, 2004, David D. Brown IV, who runs the state attorney general’s Investment Protection Bureau, fished the mail out of his in-box at his Albany office. One letter caught his eye. It was addressed in blocky handwriting to his boss, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Postmarked Westchester, without a return address, it had the feel, Brown thought, of an anthrax letter. (Fortunately, it was already open.)
At that moment, Brown, 46, was in the midst of settling cases in the mutual-fund investigation he’d led for Spitzer, the largest probe into the $7 trillion industry in 60 years. In settlement negotiations, Brown tended to have the upper hand. “Tell them it’s $25 million more if they don’t settle today,” he relayed to one company, “and Monday it goes up $50 million.”
At the same time, Spitzer put a bug in his ear. “What’s next?” he badgered.
Lately the attorney general’s office had been receiving lots of tips. The one Brown was currently considering came in the form of two single-spaced, typewritten pages. It was signed “Concerned.” One line jumped out.
“The point is to appear as if Marsh is providing a service to the insurance market rather than the reality which is that Marsh is receiving major income for directing business to preferred providers/insurance markets,” it said.
The letter made a stunning allegation against the world’s largest insurance broker, Marsh & McLennan. It charged that in its commercial insurance, the broker took two payments. First, it got a commission from its customers, the businesses it represented that were seeking insurance. Then, it took undisclosed payments from the insurance companies that wrote the policies.
Brown is a Harvard Law School grad—he and Spitzer were classmates there—with a talent for boiling things down. “Rotten,” he thought. From early on, that second undisclosed payment looked to Brown like a kickback.
Brown faxed the anonymous letter to Spitzer.
“If this is true,” Spitzer told Brown by phone, “this is amazing. I want them”—the company’s representatives—“in here now.”
“Eliot,” says David Brown, “lends speed and violence to this process that you wouldn’t believe.”
Three days later, Brown sent out a broad subpoena to Marsh. He tracked Marsh’s general counsel, William Rosoff, to Asia, where he was traveling on business. Within a week, Rosoff appeared at the attorney general’s office in Manhattan. Says Brown, “Eliot is an extremely impatient man, to put it mildly.”
No one expected great things from Eliot Spitzer when he was elected in 1998—his margin of victory was only 25,000 votes—over incumbent Dennis Vacco. The New York Times had held its nose while endorsing him as the least bad of “two flawed candidates.” Initially, Spitzer seemed to fudge the source of his campaign money, much of which came from his family. He was viewed as a spoiled rich kid whose latest entitlement was statewide office, albeit one that historically had minimal power. (Fortunately for Spitzer, Vacco was “an even worse choice,” said the Times.)
But in the six years he’s been attorney general, Spitzer has transformed the office, “detonating,” as one observer put it, several of the country’s most significant industries in the process. He’s beaten the mutual-fund industry, the investment-banking industry, midwestern polluters, giant pharmaceutical companies; he’s had a run at gun manufacturers—his progressive agenda seems as broad as any governor’s. “Eliot,” says one admirer, “knows no limits.”
Spitzer has transformed his own political future. Perhaps, as some now say, a run for governor has always been in the cards for the ambitious Spitzer. The offhanded announcement of his candidacy last month—he initiated it by phoning a few reporters—seemed to indicate as much. It was, for instance, unadorned with such niceties as a gubernatorial program. Indeed, the independently wealthy Spitzer, the stiff-backed, virtuous, sometimes vengeful “plutocrat populist,” as friends would have it, seemed to feel it was enough, at this point, to offer a few perfunctory comments (accountability was a central theme) and his résumé. So did some admirers, who started to call him Governor.
Businesspeople, defense attorneys, and, lately, insurance men see an entirely different character. Spitzer, they say, has turned prosecutions into power showdowns and personal drubbings. “Authoritarian, liberal egomaniac,” says one businessman. Even his lawyer friends discreetly remove their names from fund-raisers so as not to enrage corporate clients.
In person, Eliot Spitzer doesn’t immediately come across as the sort to inflict a drubbing, personal or otherwise. Spitzer is balding on top—the central strip looks like a crop that won’t quite take. His ears pop out. In conversation, he is commanding, rambling, impatient (“Let me make your point for you”), self-deprecating, often on the point of impatience (“I do occasionally listen”), and nerdy. Perhaps it’s words like injurious that pepper his speech that give him the eggheady allure. Plus, Spitzer has those geeky intellectual reflexes. A person who explained the cleverness of Star Wars to Spitzer recalls him responding, “Like Fenimore Cooper.”
Then there is also Spitzer’s apparent shyness about the personal. These days, politicians, like talk-show hosts, are supposed to connect with audiences through shared emotion. Perhaps Spitzer’s biography doesn’t give him a leg up with the common man. Born to wealth—his father made a fortune in real estate—he attended Horace Mann, Princeton, Harvard. Nor does he seem comfortable dwelling on such political staples as his religion (he’s Jewish, his wife is Christian) or his family (he has three daughters). “I’m not good at my own psychoanalysis,” he says.
What Spitzer would like you to believe he’s good at, and comfortable with, are the facts—colorless, irrefutable. It’s a theme he can’t stay away from. “[It’s] the underlying facts that drive each of the major cases,” he says one day in his office. They’re like happy memories; effortlessly, he summons up facts from even distant cases. For Spitzer, law, not religion, not family, is “the civilizing force,” the source of fairness and accountability, his emerging gubernatorial themes. And underpinning the law are a few impartial, unemotional, and resilient facts.
Clearly, though, facts serve for Spitzer as a gateway, not merely to justice but also to anger, especially the righteous strain that so infuriates his critics. Even seated in his office, legs crossed in his pin-striped suit—an aide once tried unsuccessfully to get him in a flannel shirt—you can feel the engine rev. Rosoff, just the name, adds fuel. Indeed, the insurance investigation begun with the letter to Brown offers perhaps the fullest glimpse at how the man who may soon be the state’s highest elected official wields power. In it, he is at full throttle, “righting the wrong,” as he would say; at the same time, he is restructuring industries, aggressively, personally, mercilessly. And, as Brown would add, impatiently.