How New York Comptroller Candidate Eliot Spitzer Skated Criminal Charges For Prostitution

Just hours after former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his intentions, he was greeted with the sort of Twitter storm that disgraced politicians have come to expect in the age of social media.

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Eliot Spitzer
Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer

Just hours after former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his intention to get back into electoral politics, he was greeted with the sort of Twitter storm that disgraced politicians have come to expect in the age of social media.

Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president once thought to have a lock on the New York Comptroller job Spitzer now seeks, filled his online feed with stinging rebukes, mostly retweeted from other New Yorkers. “I like a joke as much as the next person, but does it have to be my hometown? #Spitzer,” read one. “’Forgiveness’≠being right for a job. NYC Comptroller’s Office≠solution to someone’s midlife crisis. Eliot=about to encounter @Stringer2013,” read another. Several other tweets mentioned ethics and honor, in clear reference to the prostitution scandal that forced Spitzer to resign from office in 2008.

But if the attacks are predictable and biting, the hurdles are also surmountable. Recent history has shown time and again that voters, especially in urban areas, are willing to overlook personal failures at the ballot box. Sexual impropriety, even when it leads to resignation from office, often does not end political careers. Most recently former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford won a special election to the U.S. Congress, after resigning from office while carrying on an extramarital affair. Louisiana Republican David Vitter won reelection after his name surfaced in an investigation of a call girl ring. Anthony Weiner, the former congressman from New York who resigned after sending sexual pictures of himself to strangers, is mounting a strong campaign to become mayor of New York City.

Like Vitter’s alleged payments for sex, Spitzer’s infidelities allegedly involved a crime under state and federal laws, solicitation of prostitution, though he was never prosecuted, since federal prosecutorial guidelines tend to discourage indictments of prostitution clients in such cases. Federal law typically comes into play when the act of hiring a prostitute crosses state borders. In Washington, D.C., where at least one of Spitzer’s encounters took place, the standard penalty for hiring a prostitute is a $500 fine with no more than 90 days in jail, though in practice the penalties tend to be less severe. Spitzer was investigated by U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia in Manhattan, who concluded that Spitzer did not use public or campaign money to pay for prostitutes, and did not break the law in the way he structured the payments for sexual services. No local charges were ever brought against him.

“I resigned my position as governor because I recognized that conduct was unworthy of an elected official,” Spitzer said in a statement when it was clear he would not face charges. “I once again apologize for my actions and for the pain and disappointment those actions caused my family and the many people who supported me during my career in public life.”

A political campaign, however, is not bound by such prosecutorial guidelines. In a statement Sunday night, Stringer made clear that he would make Spitzer’s behavior a factor in the coming primary campaign, along with Spitzer’s considerable personal wealth. “Scott Stringer has a proven record of results and integrity and entered this race to help New York’s middle class regain it’s footing,” said Sascha Owen, Stringer’s campaign manager. “By contrast, Eliot Spitzer is going to spurn the campaign finance program to try and buy personal redemption with his family fortune.”

Rather than shrink from the limelight, Spitzer has spent the years after his public disgrace trying to raise his profile, with a string of broadcast media jobs at CNN, Current TV and NY1, none of which has been particularly successful. He enters the race for New York comptroller with a reputation as a public servant who, despite personal failings, served combative terms in office, first as New York State attorney general and then as Governor. He remains best known for a string of high-profile prosecutions and settlements against Wall Street firms between 2000 and 2006.

In an interview Sunday with the New York Times, he hinted that this combative style would be a centerpiece of his new campaign. “I have always enjoyed chatting with the leadership of Wall Street,” he told the newspaper. “We haven’t always agreed.”