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Was Eliot Spitzer targeted?

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The case against Eliot Spitzer did not start with the report of a crime. Rather it started with a decision to look into Spitzer’s financial dealings to see if any dirt could be spotted and then developed into something consequential. It was not the amount of money being transferred that triggered interest. What triggered not just interest but action was the person initiating the transfers, for he was a powerful Democratic governor who just might be, by this means, removed from office.

    Several reports about this case have suggested that it is somehow routine for prosecutors to go through the financial records of public officials to look for evidence of corruption. But in the absence of specific grounds justifying the investigation (for instance, an informant complaining about a bribe), prosecutors have no such authority. Investigators in this case appear to have been investigating Spitzer in the hopes of finding something compromising. Nailing Spitzer had become a politically-based priority.

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    By contrast, in the case of Republican Congressman David Vitter, federal prosecutors had proceeded against a prostitution ring yet showed little interest in the customer list that included a former high-ranking Bush Administration official (Randall Tobias, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development) and a U.S. Senator (David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana). In fact, the prosecutors' conduct in the "D.C. Madam" case was remarkably deferential to the public figures involved. Vitter got a slap on the wrist and that was the end of it. So why the double standard when it’s a Democrat that gets caught in the net?

    The feds had built their case against the prostitution ring and were ready to make arrests, but it seems they held back in hopes they could get enough incriminating evidence to maximally slam Spitzer. They could have gone with the announcement about the prostitution ring back in January. But they didn’t. They waited until they could get permission from Attorney General Mukase to tap Spitzer’s phone calls – they got that permission that same month – and then proceeded to get enough on Spitzer to remove him from office.

    “Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap discussing plans to meet a high-priced prostitute in Washington, D.C. The news was first reported Monday afternoon.”

    However, in the process of the investigation, some basic prosecutorial rules were violated:

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    The feds prepared pleadings which were filled with salacious detail that served no purpose other than to assure the eventual public humiliation of Spitzer.

    Then they tipped the press to the fact that “Client 9” was Eliot Spitzer. Over the next 48 hours, they filled the press with copious additional details surrounding Spitzer, many of them lurid.

    All of this made marvelous copy for the tabloids. But it also violated basic rules of prosecutorial ethics and can only be explained as part of a partisan political endeavor: to take down a prominent political figure of the opposition party.

   Most of the foregoing commentary is based on a report by law school professor Scott Horton at

    Exactly how did the case against Spitzer get launched? And was he really brought down by a politically motivated investigation?

    An IRS office was tipped off by Republican officials at various banks that Spitzer was often depositing a few thousand dollars in different accounts within the space of a day or two. Realizing it just might have a political tiger by the tail, the Republicans at the IRS then contacted the Department of Justice and the FBI. At the Republican-controlled DOJ, the Public Integrity Section quickly launched an investigation. It’s not surprising that they jumped at this possibility of nailing Spitzer since they had already gone after six times more Democratic politicians than Republicans, mostly in conjunction with wiping out the Democrats’ prospects in upcoming elections.

    With a little detective work and tapped phone calls, the Republicans at DOJ soon discovered that Spitzer was seeing high-priced call girls. This is a petty misdemeanor in most jurisdictions, but the DOJ went ahead and constructed an elaborate and costly sting operation, for the express purpose of getting the goods on one of the country's most powerful Democratic politicians -- who happened to be committing a petty, if potentially very embarrassing, crime.

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    In the course of the sting, Spitzer made a big mistake: He paid a call girl to travel from New York to Washington. This put him in technical violation of an 85-year-old federal law, the Mann Act, which has a long history of being used for politically motivated prosecutions of the worst sort, such as those directed years ago at the famous Negro boxer Jack Johnson and also Jewish movie legend Charlie Chaplin.

    Only then was the existence of the investigation leaked to the media.

    What we're dealing with here is a classic abuse of the criminal justice system: a plan to use a sting to take down a powerful political enemy.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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