Eliot L. Spitzer said everything would change once he became governor, but we never thought that declaration covered the political misuse of state police. That is what has happened, though -- if not with Spitzer's knowledge, then at the insistence of aides who know him well.
As a report by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo makes clear, aides to the governor pushed the state police to provide travel information about Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, then provided "selective" details to the Albany Times-Union, a day after the paper made a formal request for the information. Thus, in an echo of President Nixon's Watergate abuses, officers of the state's lead law enforcement agency were pressed into service as a tool of political punishment -- "precisely where they do not belong," as Cuomo's report observed.
The State Police also released the documents without regard to "potential security concerns" for Bruno who, like many public officials in high office, has received death threats, the report said. It also concluded that Bruno did nothing wrong under existing travel regulations, although it said those rules are lax and need to be toughened.
What remains unclear is if the two aides involved in this smear campaign were running a rogue operation or if they had -- or thought they had -- Spitzer's approval, tacit or otherwise. Darren Dopp, who was the governor's communications director, has worked for Spitzer for years, going back to his service as attorney general. Few employees would know better what goals Spitzer would want to accomplish and what tactics he would accept in their pursuit.
Dopp was suspended indefinitely, without pay, following the Cuomo report's conclusion that he led the effort to undermine Bruno. Another aide, William Howard, whose job gave him authority over the State Police, was transferred to another agency. Acting State Police Superintendent Preston L. Felton was not disciplined, but Spitzer strongly implied at a meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board that Felton would not be elevated to the top position.
Two things now need to happen. The state indeed has to clarify the rules for the use of state aircraft. And Spitzer has to clarify the rules of conduct in his office.
Spitzer has accepted responsibility, apologized to Bruno and taken immediate if interim steps to correct the lapses identified by the Attorney General. He must follow that up with an even more thorough review of the way his own office works, and ensure that he has control of, as well as responsibility for, the actions of subordinates acting in his name. It is important for this state that this political blunder does not derail the push for substantive and needed state reforms. Otherwise, the consequences of this dismal affair stand to radiate far beyond an embarrassed governor and disciplined aides.
The governor has a lot of cleanup to do, and a tough job ahead in regaining the political trust of New Yorkers. It's not clear how much clout he has lost, but what is certain is that senior people in his administration put a crucial agenda at risk by playing fast and loose with the power that voters gave them. Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver would like nothing more than for the state to continue its dysfunctional ways. This diversion makes that more likely to occur.