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Spitzer no longer squeaky-clean Aides' attempt to smear Bruno is latest in series of incidents tarnishing governor's 'law and order' image

In just seven months, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer has gone from being the law and order "sheriff of Wall Street" to the leader of an administration beset with ethical breaches and angry confrontations that have made Albany as dysfunctional as ever.

Now he faces his most troublesome period in office, with revelations last week that senior aides used state police to plot a smear campaign against his political enemy.

The scandal has severely dented the ethical image that Spitzer himself set as he campaigned for governor.

"We've seen it time and again through American politics: If you run as a reformer, the bar is set higher for your own conduct, and even if that may not be fair in the overall scheme of things, it's just a fact of political life," said James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo.

But the smear campaign isn't his administration's only ethical problem. Consider these events during Spitzer's first seven months as governor:

*After rebuking lawmakers for being beholden to special interest campaign money, Spitzer told wealthy fundraisers they would be rewarded with varying degrees of gubernatorial access, including dinners with him and his wife, depending on how many hundreds of thousands of dollars they raised for his 2010 campaign;

*After questioning the work ethic of the Legislature, the governor took two end-of-session political trips out West while lawmakers were back in Albany;

*The governor's choice to head the Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, has been a longtime energy-industry insider. A day after she dropped out of the running in June, media reports said she owned thousands of shares in a company whose sale must be approved by that agency;

*Also at the PSC, a holdover member of the board from the Pataki administration accused a top Spitzer aide, now under investigation by the state Inspector General, of threatening her job if she didn't vote a certain way on pending matters and suggesting that she quit the board to make way for a Spitzer appointee;

*The Spitzer administration has floated a plan that would give part of the state's lucrative thoroughbred racetrack franchise at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks to a group whose partners include a major campaign donor who flew the governor on his private jet to Wyoming last year for a splashy fundraiser;

*Republican legislators say the governor has tried to lure some of them to high-paying state jobs as a way to wrestle control of the State Senate from the GOP this year;

*Spitzer nominated a New York City real estate mogul to head the Metropolitan Transportation Authority soon after the mogul hosted a fundraiser for the governor in a Central Park penthouse. The mogul's wife has contributed nearly $40,000 to Spitzer's political campaigns since 2000.

>Blow to his image

But those were minor distractions compared to what the governor now faces: Revelations that two top aides conspired to use the State Police to monitor and then smear his major political enemy, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

The scandal has deeply dented the governor's ability to hold himself out as someone different from the culture in Albany that, during his campaign, he promised to wipe away.

"There is a danger run by any kind of crusading political figure that certainly it's easier to hold them up to a charge of hypocrisy if they don't live up to squeaky-clean standards that they demand of others," UB's Campbell said.

Where other investigations -- one by the state Ethics Commission and another by the State Senate -- take the scandal is anyone's guess. How Spitzer responds could shape the rest of his tenure as governor.

So far, he has sent mixed signals. On Monday and Tuesday, he was in an apologetic mode.

By Wednesday, that was gone, replaced by statements lashing out at "partisan" politics by the GOP-led Senate and rebukes that any Senate probe of his administration would be unconstitutional.

On Thursday, he sounded conciliatory again.

Mostly, though, the governor has been stonewalling.

>Advice of counsel

He would not say why his two top advisers rebuffed Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's attempts to question them under oath.

He would not say if his counsel advised them not to talk; later, Richard Baum, secretary to the governor and one of the aides in question, said it was, indeed, Spitzer's counsel who advised them not to grant an interview with Cuomo.

And the governor would not say whether he thought it was appropriate that Baum and Darren Dopp, his communications director who led the Bruno smear fiasco, refused to testify.

Even many Democrats say the governor is in trouble.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, called the controversy a distraction and "side show," saying it is time to move on.

"I stand by my governor. He said he didn't know," Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said of the smear campaign by Spitzer aides.

Others, though, have a difficult time believing that such a hands-on administrator as Spitzer had no knowledge that his top advisers were involved in a smear campaign.

And still others say Spitzer, at the very least, has cultivated an us-versus-them culture in his administration.

Spitzer's take-no-prisoners style may have worked while prosecuting corporate abuses on Wall Street, legislators say, but that is backfiring when dealing with the 212-member Legislature.

"One of the characteristics so many of us admired about Eliot Spitzer is that, you know, he's a hard ass. He's a no nonsense, get-to-the-bottom type of guy," Hoyt said. "What may have hurt him is that it's possible that certain members of his team took that same hard-ass mentality to an extreme.

"He needs to now set the tone in a way that it's abundantly clear to staff that they are expected to behave," Hoyt added.

>Public is skeptical

But that would require a personality change on the part of the governor, observers say. Spitzer has boasted on numerous occasions of enjoying the field of battle, of getting excited by confrontations. He once talked of it being in his DNA to be combative.

Spitzer stormed into office after getting nearly 70 percent of the statewide vote last year. Last week, though, New Yorkers were showing signs of skepticism toward their governor. Sixty-two percent of registered voters think there should be additional inquiries in the attempted smear campaign, half think Spitzer knew what his aides were up to and 80 percent think Spitzer should testify about his knowledge of the scandal, according to poll by WNBC in New York and Marist College.

Last week, with his administration reeling from the scandal, the governor talked of a new reform plan on his menu: himself.

"I'm a grown-up. I get it. I'll try to show a different side of me," he told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday. "Now I'll try to play hard on the field and be friends during the game."

But those statements came as the Spitzer administration accused Senate Republicans of wasting taxpayer money for "political purposes" while insisting his administration does not legally have to cooperate with any legislative probe.

Where will this all go?

It's not the only question being asked in Albany nowadays, but it is the most burning.


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