Watch what Albany does over the next few weeks and you'll get a good idea of what the State Senate and Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer really want to accomplish over the coming months.
If the Senate bogs down in a show-trial investigation of Spitzer, you know its goal is not fixing New York's broken government but taking the steam out of Spitzer's push for reform.
If Spitzer fails to take all reasonable steps to put the scandal behind him -- ensuring, for example, that his senior staffers meet high standards of ability, diligence and ethics -- then his interests lie somewhere other than accomplishing the reforms he promised the voters of this misgoverned state.
There may be other investigative paths, far less political than any Senate hearings in the camp of the political enemy, that can shed uncolored light on this issue and give New Yorkers -- who now, according to polls, want the governor to address this scandal far more openly and directly than he has so far -- more assurance that the unvarnished truth is being pursued. The state Ethics Commission or a special prosecutor may do so. The Senate is not that arena.
Spitzer has been tarnished by this mess. Whether he tarnished himself directly or was tarnished indirectly by failing to properly assemble a staff and create an atmosphere in which such ethical lapses were unthinkable, the outcome's the same. Because he failed to first ensure his own house was in order, a governor who campaigned as a champion of ethics is tarred with an ethics scandal.
Because of the actions of Spitzer's aides, who wrongly used State Police to try to undermine Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate now has cover to launch an investigation whose purpose is not so much to clear the air as to wrap the governor in a paralyzing fog of politics and undermine his reform goals.
The Republican Senate -- and, for that matter, the Democratic Assembly -- would like nothing better than to put an end to efforts aimed at producing transparency, accountability and electoral risk. They have swaddled themselves in a comfortable system that allows them to do more or less as they please without penalty. It doesn't matter to them that its consequence has been to produce the country's most dysfunctional legislature and, not coincidentally, its highest taxes.
For an example, look no further than Bruno's helicopter flights, which launched this mess. They were legal, Cuomo's report concluded, but they were still abusive to taxpayers who paid for his convenience. On one, Bruno did less than an hour of official state business -- making it technically legal to bill taxpayers -- before turning to partisan matters.
Indeed, the Senate already has sent worrisome signals about its intentions. Just before Cuomo's report was released, the governor, Senate and Assembly agreed on a significant campaign finance reform measure. Since the report, the Senate has made noises about withholding final approval. What's different? Is the Senate in favor of campaign finance reform or not? What do Spitzer's problems have to do with that?
In addition, while Bruno complimented Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for an "excellent job" investigating the misuse of State Police, that investigation concluded that no laws were broken. And although Spitzer wasn't questioned in the investigation, he has stated unequivocally that he knew nothing of his aides' actions. That will strike many as unlikely and, if it turns out not to be true, Spitzer will pay a high price.
But when it comes to further investigation, senators can rest easy. In addition to any official probes, dozens of reporters are on the job, trying to determine what may be amiss. If anything is, its likelihood of remaining undisclosed are on the order of snow failing to fall in Buffalo in January. We're talking about Albany, after all, and this episode seems to have been handled with sufficient recklessness that any secrets will spill.
Given that the stakes are political, not legal, and that Albany is in such dire need of repair, senators would do well to resist a spectacle and settle for doing the urgent job for which voters elected them.