The equalizer

Eliot Spitzer's zeal for justice has made him enemies and friends. It may also make him governor.

Eliot SpitzerEliot Spitzer '84 has no time to waste. Instead of hello and a handshake, the New York state attorney general greets a visitor with "OK, let's get to work."

On a stormy day, from the 25th floor of his Lower Manhattan office building, Spitzer is preparing for a press conference to announce a $600,000 settlement with Macy's department stores--a result of his investigation into complaints that African-Americans and Latinos were unfairly targeted for shoplifting arrests. He has also just brokered an $850 million settlement with Marsh & McLennan over insurance bid-rigging allegations. And, of course, he is in the early stages of his campaign to be elected governor of New York in 2006.

It's all in a day's work for Spitzer, New York's attorney general since 1999, who is hoping that his high-profile investigations into conflicts of interest in the financial services industry, polluting power plants and low-wage labor violations by grocery stores will catapult him into the Empire State's highest office. "The problem-solving nature of this job has prepared me for the governor's office," says Spitzer, 45, noting that he is excited by the prospect of moving into the policy-making position once held by his political role model, Theodore Roosevelt, whose sepia portrait hangs on his office wall.

Even outside New York, Spitzer's image is becoming familiar. His trim face, protruding jaw and intense gaze have accompanied recent articles in magazines ranging from The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly to Vanity Fair and People. While Spitzer is celebrated as a populist, a reformer and a champion of civil rights, he has also become a familiar target for critics who say that many of the issues he takes on are better left to the federal system. Last June, National Review described him as "the most destructive politician in America." And U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue has blasted his corporate prosecutions, calling him "the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner. It is the most egregious and unacceptable form of intimidation that we have seen in this country in modern times."

Spitzer does his best to ignore the comments, which--positive or negative--tend to be extreme. "Our job is just to enforce the law," he says. "I reject the notion that the cases we are making are out of a political agenda." Early in his tenure as attorney general, Spitzer says, he was told that taking on powerful targets would end his political career. But he has maintained that he is not so concerned about his political career that he won't pursue transgressions at the highest levels.

He also shrugs off concerns that he is spread too thin--that his rapid-fire probes are not carefully prepared. "We are always cognizant of the allocation of resources," says Brad Maione, a spokesman for Spitzer's office, which includes more than 600 lawyers, 1,800 employees and an annual budget of $191 million. Although some investigations result in settlements, the office is not afraid to go to court, says Maione, pointing to the high-profile, ongoing litigation involving former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Dick Grasso's controversial $187.5 million compensation package.

This was not the career Spitzer imagined for himself as a student at Harvard Law School. "I thought I'd clerk, spend a few years at a firm, a few years at a prosecutor's office, and then go into business with my dad," he says, referring to his father, Bernard Spitzer, a self-made multimillionaire real estate developer. Instead, he followed a path into public service. He did clerk, for U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet. And he was an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. He also worked at the New York law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and was a partner at Constantine & Partners. In between his stints in the private sector, he served as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 1986 to 1992, rising to become chief of the Labor Racketeering Unit, where he successfully prosecuted organized crime and political corruption cases.

In a strange coincidence, the prosecutor who promoted Spitzer to chief of that unit, Michael G. Cherkasky, now heads Marsh & McLennan, which the New York attorney general's office has charged with rigging bids for property and casualty insurance contracts and favoring insurers that paid higher incentive commissions. It is another turn in his career that Spitzer says he never would have predicted. "He's a friend," Spitzer says of Cherkasky. "He was brought in to restore integrity to the company." Skeptics have wondered whether Marsh & McLennan chose Cherkasky to lead the company this past fall because of his ties to Spitzer. Cherkasky could not be reached for comment for this article, but in November he told Forbes, "We're not going to pay one dollar less in restitution than if I wasn't here. It's just not going to happen."

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