A Listener's Guide to the Spitzer Scandal

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Politics and media junkies in New York have been obsessed this week with the scandal involving Governor Spitzer’s office trying to smear Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. But for non-junkies, the case can be a confusing mess. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer has this listener’s guide to the scandal and some unsolicited advice for those involved.

Brian: It would have been brilliant if they didn’t get caught. High-ranking Spitzer Administration officials decided to manufacture some news for The Albany Times Union. And not just any kind of news: scandalous muckraking news about Spitzer’s rival, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. If they could discredit Bruno, the Republicans might lose their two seat Senate majority in the elections next year and voila – the Democrats would be in charge of both houses of the legislature for the first time in decades. Bye bye gridlock, hello Spitzer’s agenda.

Brian: So some of the governor’s closest aides asked the state police for a little favor: write up some reports on Bruno’s use of state helicopters and release them to the Times Union. They were hoping to catch Bruno using the choppers for trips that were purely political with no official business. But it wasn’t to be. Bruno’s political trips did include at least some state business – enough to keep him within the letter of a weakly-written law. And worse for the governor, his office got caught orchestrating this dirty trick. No one in Albany can remember the state police ever being used specifically to write reports on a governor’s political rival. For afficiandos of the J. Edgar Hoover era, one journalist friend of mine calls this scandal “Co-intelpro for white people."

Brian: Assembly Democrats, also annoyed by Spitzer’s steamrolling ways, are not closing ranks. On my weekday call-in show, Democratic Assemblyman Peter Rivera of the Bronx said fabricating documents under FOIL, the Freedom of Information Law, may be criminal.

Rivera: As a result of a sham FOIL request, reports were created. And reports were created that normally would not have been created. I’m not ready to say that it’s clear to me that there were no violations of the law.

Brian: The obsession in the last few days has been figuring out if Governor Spitzer himself was involved in ordering up the documents for a Freed. On Thursday I asked Spitzer’s spokeswoman Christine Anderson: if Spitzer wasn't in on the scheme, who first told him about it?

Anderson: I think he said he doesn’t remember who first mentioned to him that a FOIL had been received and a story was likely to follow from it. Brian: So you don’t remember who first told him that something improper may have taken place? Anderson: I’m speaking for the governor. That is what he has said very clearly.

Brian: Uh-oh. One of those famous convenient memory lapses. Now Bruno himself is investigating Spitzer with a Senate committee that will make it a top priority.

Bruno: We are going to govern after we get the truth about the potential abuse of power in the Governor’s office. How much did the Governor know?

Brian: Now: no one in Albany is asking for my advice, so here it is:

Governor Spitzer: Just cooperate with Bruno’s and any other investigation. Give them whatever they want. If you’re telling the truth about your lack of involvement, the bad stuff is already out. It’ll just be rehash and soon go away. And if you lied, the media will smoke you out anyway, whether you stonewall the Senate or not.

And Senator Bruno: Don’t try to make more of this than it really is: It’s not Watergate as an overheated media keeps suggesting. The people will soon get tired of your siren song and demand that you get down to business: the reform agenda that Spitzer is still right to push and that you still resist. Otherwise, you may lose those elections next year even without dirty tricks.