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Aides' lapse of ethics hurts Spitzer image

Just when you thought the stench was lifting from state politics, the self-proclaimed fumigator of Albany adds to the smell.

Eliot Spitzer came to the governorship seven months ago riding the cleansing white horse. Having exposed much that was rotten on Wall Street, the governor vowed to disinfect state government. But the misplaced zeal of key staffers stomped the ethics and better judgment on which Spitzer prides himself.

A report by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo laid it out. Some of Spitzer's people played dirty in trying to burn State Senate Republican boss Joe Bruno, who angered Spitzerites by roadblocking campaign finance reforms. The Spitzer side's stab at discrediting Bruno included misuse of state police as political attack dogs and gathering Bruno-related information on the pretext of non-existent media requests.

It was a simple game of gotcha. Spitzer staffers thought they could catch Bruno using state aircraft to fly to political fundraisers, then feed the information to the media. Much to the undoubted dismay of Spitzer's people, Bruno -- a savvy Albany player who covers his back -- mixed in policy on the political trips. Spitzer's people, in trying to nail Bruno, walked all over the rule book and consequently stewed their own man.

It was not criminal, but it crossed the line beyond the usual Albany back-stabbing and dime-dropping. Worse for the governor, it seemed more Nixonian than Spitzerian. Tricky Dick was notorious for enlisting law enforcement to gather dirt on political rivals and "troublesome" citizens. While Spitzer's staffers did not sink to nearly that level, they bored holes in the moral high ground Spitzer usually occupies.

Credibility and ethics form the cornerstone on which Spitzer stands. Cracks have appeared.

"It is much more than a blemish," Spitzer acknowledged in a meeting Tuesday at The Buffalo News. "But I have eight years as attorney general where my record is pretty clear."

It is. And he helped himself by taking the hit, apologizing and doling out punishment. His communications director is suspended, his go-to guy with the State Police is gone from his office, and the acting State Police superintendent will likely not keep the job.

"It damages [Spitzer]," said Kevin Hardwick, political science professor at Canisius College. "But as long as the pattern does not persist, he can recover. And he made no attempt to cover up, which is where you really get into problems."

The report cleared Spitzer of any knowledge of the attempt. Some Republicans contended that the hands-on Spitzer must have known. If he knew, but denies it, it is worse than it seems. If he didn't know, then his own people acted behind his back. Either way, it does not look good. But absent the proverbial smoking gun, Spitzer dodges the direct hit.

Still, the episode is discouraging. Spitzer is a political animal, but his administration is supposedly above this sort of muck-dwelling.

Denials aside, you cannot help but wonder what he knew, and when he knew it. Using the media to embarrass a foe is Spitzer's MO. As attorney general, he pressured investigative targets with high-profile news conferences and media revelations. Revealing a Bruno transgression, particularly one involving misuse of tax dollars, would have bloodied opponent Bruno during the campaign finance battle. It also would have boosted the odds of a Democratic takeover of the Republican-controlled Senate in next year's elections.

But this is Albany, not a prosecutor's office. The ploy dents Spitzer's credibility and gives second thoughts to the legions who thought he was different. Mr. Clean has a lot of cleaning up to do.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.co

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