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We deserve better from the governor

The hunter now is hunted. The clumsy ploy by Eliot Spitzer's staffers to smear Republican nemesis Joe Bruno has blown up in the governor's face.

It has blown up in all of our faces. The smarmy episode, capsulized in Monday's report from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, is disheartening. Folks counted on Spitzer being different. Brunogate is business as usual.

Spitzer was elected because he preached reform and had a record, as attorney general, that put weight behind the words. The unethical attempt by top staffers to embarrass the Senate majority leader threatens -- as Republicans press for more answers -- to morph into a full-blown scandal. If it does, Spitzer is weakened, supporters feel betrayed, his reform agenda is compromised, and a job-hungry upstate will suffer.

Spitzer was supposed to be above dirty political tricks. Yet some key aides misused the State Police, under the pretext of answering requests for information from the media. It was part of a failed attempt to catch Bruno misusing state aircraft to fly to fundraisers.

We expect such a sleazy move from an Albany hack, not from a reformist governor's office. The Bruno blunder shoots holes in the White Knight's ethical armor. It usually takes a couple of years for the well-intentioned to let political vendettas blind them to the bigger picture. With Spitzer's people -- and maybe with the man himself -- perspective was bludgeoned in a matter of months.

Political mud-wrestling is nothing knew. But even in Albany, there are rules.

Cuomo's probe of a fellow Democrat was at first seen as a step for good government. Spitzer denied involvement, he disciplined aides Darren Dopp and William Howard, and declared the incident over. But it was not as good as it seemed.

Dopp and Richard Baum, Spitzer's secretary, refused to speak with investigators and got off with two-paragraph statements. Spitzer was not questioned. Baum was not disciplined, although Cuomo's report puts him in the informational loop.

Asked Thursday whether Dopp and Baum should have spoken with investigators, Spitzer declined to answer. The nonresponse merely fuels suspicion.

The notion that top staffers of a micromanaging governor launched a rogue operation without him knowing strains one's imagination. Republicans are calling for hearings and want Spitzer and Baum to testify. Spitzer contends that there is nothing more to say.

The tables have turned. As attorney general, Spitzer arm-twisted records and testimony out of investigative targets with subpoenas and news conferences. He rightly claimed that sunshine is the best disinfectant. So much for sunshine. Spitzer has devolved from steamroller to stonewaller.

The governor battled, as promised, from Day One to break Albany's petrification. He targeted legislative party bosses Bruno and Democrat Shelly Silver. He crossed the state to name names of reform-blocking legislators in their backyards. But the frontal assault stalled, as polls showed sympathy for Spitzer's targets. Trying to catch Bruno breaking the rules looks like Plan B. Fair enough -- but do not misuse the State Police to do it.

Job-hungry upstate desperately needs Albany to change its ways, to cut the cost of doing business here. Spitzer already has won some battles. But a full-blown scandal would undercut his public support and his chances of getting things done.

That would be the ultimate tragedy, should the Brunogate trail lead to Spitzer. It would be a victory all of those who guard Albany's hurtful status quo. If Spitzer is weakened, reform gets tougher, upstate recovery lags, and we all lose.

Spitzer would have no one to blame but himself. And neither would we.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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