senior editor at the Village Voice, where he’s been covering politics for over twenty years.
New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is expected to resign today over his involvement in a high-end prostitution ring. No charges have been filed against Spitzer, who became governor last year after campaigning to reform Albany. We speak with Wayne Barrett, senior editor at the Village Voice, where he’s been covering New York politics for over twenty years. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: In New York, Republican lawmakers are threatening to begin impeachment proceedings if Governor Eliot Spitzer does not resign by tomorrow. Spitzer has been at the center of controversy after it was reported on Monday that he was a client in a high-end prostitution ring. No charges have been filed against Spitzer, who became governor last year after campaigning to reform Albany.
On Tuesday, more details emerged over the federal investigation of Spitzer. A law enforcement official told the Associated Press that the Governor was originally the target of a public corruption investigation looking into suspicious cash wire transfers. Investigators looking into the transfers were given court-ordered wiretaps.
Prosecutors said in court papers that Spitzer had been caught on one of the wiretaps spending $4,300 with the escort service Emperors’ Club VIP. Some of the money went toward a night with a prostitute named Kristen on February 13th, and the rest to be used as credit toward future encounters. Investigators have been reported as saying that just in the past year, Spitzer had had more than a half-dozen meetings with prostitutes and paid tens of thousands of dollars to the prostitution ring.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post is reporting the FBI had placed a surveillance team on Spitzer at the Mayflower Hotel weeks before February 13th in an unsuccessful effort to catch him meeting with a prostitute. On Monday, Spitzer offered a general apology but did not address the specific allegations.
GOV. ELIOT SPITZER: I’ve acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and that violates my or any sense of right and wrong. I apologize first and most importantly to my family. I apologize to the public, whom I promised better. I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good and doing what is best for the state of New York. But I’ve disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself. I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Unidentified aides told the New York Times that Spitzer’s wife, Silda, was urging him not to step down, but several aides told the paper they expected him to resign by today. If Spitzer does resign, Lieutenant Governor David Paterson would replace him. Paterson would become New York’s first African American governor and the nation’s first legally blind governor.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the state of affairs in New York, Wayne Barrett joins us in our firehouse studio, senior editor at the Village Voice, where he’s been covering New York politics for over twenty years. Wayne, we’re usually talking to you around scandals. Rudolph Giuliani — you were last here saying maybe you’ll never type his name again. Well, now another major scandal is unfolding here, paralyzing New York State. Tell us about Eliot Spitzer and how he came to this point.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, this is — has the feeling it’s such an abrupt reversal of almost a political assassination. I mean, I can’t see how he can stay in office. His conduct is deplorable. I can’t see why he should stay in office. And I’ve been one of his strongest supporters in the media, so I say it with great regret, because there has never been a change agent like this to take power in Albany. I mean, we had Mario Cuomo, in many ways was a perfectly progressive and decent governor, but he never took on the power establishment in Albany.
And the people in your audience probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but the fact is that national surveys have shown that the legislature in New York is the worst and most dysfunctional legislature in the United States. It is a place of stalemate on all of the major questions that face this state. We have the worst campaign finance system, which Eliot Spitzer was trying to change and had voluntarily imposed certain restrictions on his own contributions. I mean, literally, you can take money from — the money in Albany is completely — completely dominates the agenda. Special interest lobbying is extraordinary. So he was taking that on, and he was getting all kinds of enemies for taking it on. I mean, when he was an attorney general, he was so aggressive, he took on so many folks on Wall Street.
I don’t know how a guy who takes on that many enemies can behave in this kind of a reckless personal fashion to expose himself to what obviously is going to bring him down. So it’s a tragedy for the state that this is happening. And it’s a very, very important departure. David Paterson, who’s apparently going to replace him, is an extremely amiable and competent man, but he’s not the change agent. He’s really very familiar. His father ran for lieutenant governor forty years ago. And so, it’s — we just are not going to see the kind of change that we were on the brink of achieving really in New York politics.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, what’s remarkable, though, is how as soon as this scandal broke, most of the Democrats up there in Albany also seemed to desert the Governor, not even going through the formality of saying, well, you know, he’s innocent ’til proven guilty, let’s hear if he gets indicted or anything. But because part of it apparently was he had — while he was definitely a change agent, as you say, he also was extremely arrogant in the way he dealt with just about everyone.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, no question. And some of that is attributable to — I mean, he did something that was a total abuse of power. He tried to name his own controller, which is an independent public office. And he refused — he said no member of the Democratic Assembly is qualified to be controller in the state. So that was a terrible moment early in his administration.
But one of the reasons why the Democrats in Albany are as unlikely to support him as the Republicans is because he was challenging their game, as well. Sometimes he had challenged it in a way that was inappropriate, but he challenged their game, as well. The Assembly Democrats are as much a part of this dysfunctional legislature as the Senate Republicans are. So he was bringing dramatic change. He came within one seat — he had two special elections in the last year and came within one seat of taking over the Republican Senate. The Republicans have held it since 1965. And I don’t see that happening now. I think —-
AMY GOODMAN: And now, if he does resign and David Paterson ascends to the governorship, it looks like the man who Eliot Spitzer tangled with early on, Joseph Bruno, would become the lieutenant governor, his enemy.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes. Well, Joe Bruno is the leader of the Republican Senate and the mortal enemy of Eliot Spitzer. And he would not, I think, officially assume the title; under the state constitution, he assumes the duties without assuming the title. But effectively, it widens the margin to two votes in the Senate instead of the one vote, because you won’t have a lieutenant governor, a Democratic lieutenant governor, to break a tie. So, effectively, it increases the Republican majority in the Senate.
AMY GOODMAN: And ironically, of course, he went after Bruno for using -— trying to track him, spy on him for using state resources for private —-
WAYNE BARRETT: I think even Andrew Cuomo, the Attorney General, concluded that he wasn’t spying on him. He did try to leak -— or aides to him did try to leak a story about Senator Bruon’s use of state aircraft, but they weren’t spying on him.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to talk about this latest scandal, what could well today bring the Governor down. We’re talking to Wayne Barrett. He is longtime writer at the Village Voice
. And we’ll be talking about what happens to the women when there are stings like these in prostitution rings. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: While the Eliot Spitzer story has dominated the news media for the past two days, little coverage has been paid to the plight of sex workers in this country. Joining us in our firehouse studio is Juhu Thukral. She is director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice [Center]. The Sex Workers Project provides legal services and legal training for sex workers. In 2006, Thukral co-authored a report called "Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City." We’re also joined by Wayne Barrett, senior editor over at the Village Voice. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I’d like to first just get back to the actual case with Spitzer again, Wayne, to talk about the laws that he has so far — not even allegedly, because there hasn’t been any real formal charges yet, but the laws he faces possible charges on.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, he could be charged under the Mann Act, because he paid for the transportation of this woman from New York to D.C. for the liaison that you referred to at the top of the show, so that’s a Mann Act violation. That’s a 1910 law. Very few prosecutions under that law have occurred in recent decades, but theoretically that’s what they were investigating.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And it’s rarely — even more rarely against someone who’s a client, rather than an actual organizer of the ring.
WAYNE BARRETT: Right. And it’s — now, what they are talking about a great deal now is structuring, which is the attempt, on his part apparently, to conceal the payments that he was making to the prostitution ring, and the structuring allegation is based on whether or not he was trying to remain under the $10,000 threshold — a transaction with a bank that involves a withdrawal of more than $10,000 is supposed to be reported to the government — and whether or not he was avoiding that. The irony really — and, of course, there’s so much about this case that we don’t understand. It was made extremely quickly by a United States attorney’s office.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s what I wanted to ask you. As somebody who has covered a lot of federal investigations, this is an astonishingly rapid progress.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, Juan, not only that, I mean, they had wires on two phones. And they had a warrant approved by the court for those wires that would have extended, in one case, for almost another full month. And they brought the case down when they had wires on these lines. They wanted one man, they wanted one man only. Maybe too many rich guys were walking through the — you know, coming through on the same wires. Whatever the reason is, they brought these wires down almost instantly, as soon as they closed the deal on Eliot. And so, I find it to be a very peculiar investigation.
Now, what I don’t understand about the structuring allegation is, clearly, you can pick up the client no. 9. Eliot Spitzer refused to deal by wire transfer. And now they’re saying he had wire transfers that would have exceeded the $10,000 limit, and that’s what brought — that’s what caused the investigation to start. But you can clearly see from the court record that he refused, in this instance, at least, to make any payments by wire transfer. So there’s a lot of unanswered questions about how this —-
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened, that he takes money out of the bank at lower than $10,000, but keeps on taking out this -—
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: HSBC, I think they’re saying now —-
WAYNE BARRETT: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- the bank. And then they alert the IRS and say it looks like this money is going somewhere — perhaps is it organized crime or whatever —- they’re trying to figure it out.
WAYNE BARRETT: Right. And yet, the transaction -—
AMY GOODMAN: And maybe spent some $80,000 doing this?
WAYNE BARRETT: And yet, there were hookers that Emperors’ Club had that charged as much as $25,000, but it doesn’t appear that Eliot Spitzer ever had a single transaction involving something exceeding $10,000. So it’s unclear to me why he would need to make withdrawals over $10,000 at one time. That’s unclear to me. But, look, there’s an awful lot that’s unclear about this case. The thing is, the thing that is clear is that his conduct was deplorable, and it should cost him his office.
But why the feds were doing this, whether this was another one of — keep in mind that it’s almost six-to-one Democrats that are investigated and prosecuted by the Bush Justice Department. They see something come in on this powerful governor of New York, and suddenly an investigation is triggered that is extremely unusual. You’re not likely to read much about this in the media, because every newspaper is depending on leaks here. And transactions that newspapers make and the media companies make with prosecutors is you don’t knock a case that you’re looking for a leak on. So what we’ve got is this really unvarnished copy about this, which is kind of saluting this investigation, because everybody is looking for a piece of it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Juhu Thukral, I’d like to bring you in on this and especially this issue of the Mann Act and what your organization was doing, especially even with Governor Spitzer and how he was — reacted to some of the reforms you were trying to bring about.
JUHU THUKRAL: Last year, New York State passed anti-trafficking law, and it’s actually one of the toughest laws in the country. And Eliot Spitzer was very important in pushing the law through. We had been working on the law for the last couple of years. But there was a great deal of controversy around certain elements of the bill. And, for example, we opposed a provision that he pushed through — we and a numerous other advocates — which actually enhanced the penalties against clients of prostitutes.
And our perspective is, this is a trafficking law; let’s leave it focused on trafficking and on traffickers. And also, the more that you go after clients and customers of prostitutes, the less likely they are to actually come forward when you have knowledge, for example, of a woman that you’ve seen who’s in danger. We’ve actually had clients call us and refer women to us, so that we can help them protect their legal rights. And we’ve taken these women on as clients. So, really, it depends on what your goal is. Do you want to help people, and do you want to make sure that people feel comfortable coming forward when they have information?
AMY GOODMAN: Now, just to reiterate and just to understand, you’re saying you worked with the Governor, there were other groups involved with this, like —-
JUHU THUKRAL: Numerous other groups, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of them were?
JUHU THUKRAL: There was Safe Horizon. There was Equality Now. There was, you know, the Bar Association of New York.
AMY GOODMAN: Working to -— and Eliot Spitzer took on a crusading role here —-
JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- pushing through laws that would increase penalties against johns —-
JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- against the client.
JUHU THUKRAL: Yes, yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this happened last year.
JUHU THUKRAL: This happened just last year. The law went into effect on November 1st.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So, presumably, he was pushing toughening penalties at the same time he himself was being a client of some of — according to what the reports we’ve heard so far.
JUHU THUKRAL: I mean, that’s what it appears to be, you know. And our biggest concern is really the fact that the more that you push the sort of pressure of arrest on customers and on prostitutes, they’re much less likely to actually come forward when they need help. So our concerns are when a prostitute is assaulted by somebody, by a customer — not all customers are violent, but when they are, we want to make sure that they’re willing to come forward and say, “Look, I’ve been a victim of a crime.” And we get a lot of calls from women saying, “I’ve been a victim. I was assaulted.” Sometimes the customer is a police officer himself. And they are terrified of going forward. When we are able to go forward, we often find that the police don’t do anything. So the reason that we oppose these kinds of enhancing penalties against customers is that in the long run it just drives people further underground. And there have been studies that have shown that this doesn’t work very well.
AMY GOODMAN: Though you’re in the minority of the women’s rights groups on that, because they were pushing for —-
JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- instead of the woman being the one who’s constantly rounded up, picked up, arrested and thrown out, the sex worker, that the johns would be focused on, the people like, well, presumably Eliot Spitzer.
JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And he may now be subject to his own law that he pushed through.
JUHU THUKRAL: There were a number of women’s rights groups who agreed with Eliot Spitzer, obviously, but there were also a lot of groups that didn’t agree with that position, because, again, you know, it sounds like it’s a good answer — let’s go ahead and arrest everybody, and that’s going to end prostitution — but the truth is, people go into prostitution most often because they’re really desperate for money or they are looking around, they’re not able to make enough money. A lot of our clients have jobs in the mainstream and then supplement it with sex work, because they don’t have enough to live on.
The report that we released — but we’ve released two reports in the last few years on sex workers in New York City. Two-thirds of them say that they can’t make a living wage in jobs that they’ve had. The jobs that they have are things like waitressing, working in an office, doing retail sales, that type of thing. And so, we’re finding people are pushed into sex work often for economic reasons. And so, going after customers, what that often does is even put people in even more dangerous situations, because they are then going and agreeing to meet with customers that they may not otherwise see, because there aren’t as many customers around.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the Mann Act? It’s been rarely used, but there’s also some discussion of possible expansion or changes in it. Could you talk about that, as well?
JUHU THUKRAL: The Mann Act is often used in trafficking cases. There’s the federal trafficking law, and sometimes charges are brought under the Mann Act, as well, just to sort of make it a very complete prosecution. But right now, Congress is in the middle of reauthorizing this anti-trafficking law, the federal law, and they are looking at an expansion of the Mann Act. And again, that’s what we — we’re opposing that, as well, because what they’re trying to do — currently, the Mann Act prohibits transporting people across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. What they want to do now is also have this federal law prohibit transportation within states. But a lot of organizations have come out, because this is a state’s rights issue. This is a local crime that’s best dealt with local police and with local district attorneys’ offices. And DOJ, the Department of Justice, has actually opposed this provision. A lot of members of the national anti-trafficking organizations have opposed it, and a lot of policing organizations have opposed this expansion, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, the Mann Act was called the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, and the people most famously prosecuted under it — rarely used — are people like, well, heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson, first man prosecuted under the act for having an affair with Lucille Cameron, whom he later married, the prosecution manifestly an effort to get Johnson, who at the time was the most famous African American. 1944, Charlie Chaplin, prosecuted for having an affair with actress Joan Barry. Prosecution again provided cover for a politically motivated effort to drive Chaplin out of the country.
Now, the significance, Wayne Barrett, of these laws and the negotiation that’s taking place behind closed doors right now at Eliot Spitzer’s house? You’ve got the laws, the possibility of indictment, fierce Republican federal prosecutors right now, and you’ve got a governor who, if he were just to resign, he could then be indicted. But if he makes it a package, maybe all they want is to get him out of office.
WAYNE BARRETT: I doubt that that’s all they want. I think they want a plea to something. And they have a problem, though. They have nine other johns that are in this case, and who knows who —-
AMY GOODMAN: Number one through eight and then ten?
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes, and -— right. And who knows who they are and what – you know, whether or not — I mean, I have no doubt in my own mind that had the same situation developed where there were unusual financial transactions and a Republican governor and the Bush administration were in precisely the same set of circumstances, that we’d have never seen the light —- this case would have never seen the light of day. I have really no doubt in my mind. I mean, if you -—
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Mukasey is the Attorney General, who comes from New York.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes. Now, Michael Mukasey — now, you start talking about Giuliani, and I’m telling you, I think this is, in some ways, a very relevant Giuliani story. When Michael Mukasey recused himself as a federal judge on five or six cases, saying he was too close to Rudy Giuliani and Rudy Giuliani had an interest in this, well, there’s all kinds of speculation now that Rudy Giuliani is going to run for governor of New York. I don’t know whether or not Michael Mukasey should be handling this case. And clearly, he is personally involved in this case.
The hatred for Eliot Spitzer within the inner circle of Rudy Giuliani is profound. Ken Langone, who was involved in the investigation of the Stock Exchange, was the finance chair of Rudy Giuliani’s campaigns. And Jack Welch, the head of GE, says that Eliot Spitzer came up to him at the DNC and said, “Your friend, Ken Langone, I’m going to put a spike through his heart.” And Ken Langone hates — hates — he said yesterday something about, that no hellfire is good enough for Eliot Spitzer. Well, now, that’s just one example. The inner circle of the people around Rudy Giuliani hate Eliot Spitzer, and Michael Mukasey is part of that inner circle. I think he should recuse — he should have recused himself a long time ago from this investigation. I don’t think he should be involved in it. And, you know, I don’t think Eliot Spitzer is likely to get too fair a shake, even in these circumstances, from this Justice Department.
AMY GOODMAN: They knew all this. Eliot Spitzer knew all this.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the Wall Street Journal was reporting that the biggest celebrations were on Wall Street —-
WAYNE BARRETT: Sure.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —- as soon as the news broke, in terms of the reaction and the hatred that many of the CEOs in New York have toward Spitzer.
WAYNE BARRETT: That’s why this is such incredibly reckless conduct. If you’re going to take on these kinds of forces, I mean, show a little discretion.
AMY GOODMAN: And what Eliot Spitzer was doing on Monday, when they talk about the business — I referred to this yesterday. Democracy Now! was broadcasting from Albany, because there was a huge reproductive health summit put on by Family Planning Advocates. A thousand reproductive rights advocates, legislators were there to really talk about pushing forward on an Eliot Spitzer bill that is perhaps the most progressive abortion rights bill in the country. Ironically, yesterday was Catholic Church Lobby Day in Albany. On Monday, it was Reproductive Rights Day in Albany. And interestingly, David Paterson, who could become the first black governor of New York, the first blind governor in the country, spoke also — the Lieutenant Governor — and talked about being a Catholic who is pro-choice. Clearly, he will take on this issue in as fierce a way as Eliot Spitzer has. But it’s not talked about as much, you know, what was happening on that day and the significance of — well, it’s hard to talk about it as a sex-and-politics summit, but very ironic it took place on that day. What do you think is going to happen?
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, he’s going to have to step down. And I can’t imagine that they’re going to get a conclusion to this negotiation in short time. In some ways, the Daily News said this morning that he was holding the state hostage to this, and in some ways that’s true. It’s only been a few hours. It’s been a couple of days. I mean, I think the negotiations probably started on Monday. But I don’t see how the feds cut a deal at this point, unless he pleads to something that they regard as reasonably serious. I mean, the way they are — he was clearly the target of this investigation. They’re clearly, I mean, in a position to probably flip several people around this case. You know, they’ve indicted four people from the agency, from the Emperors’ Club. They can flip those people. I could see this case going on for a while before the feds will agree to some kind of a resolution of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Juhu, what will happen to — well, they talk about the woman, Kristen, the woman that Eliot Spitzer was with. What will happen to these women?
JUHU THUKRAL: It really depends. I mean, often in these situations where the customer is arrested or the people who are running the ring are arrested, women who are working are put in positions where they’re going to be asked to testify and really cooperate with law enforcement. So it depends on how much they need her. I mean, I think our concern is really making sure that in situations like these, if there are instances of violence, if there are instances of coercion, women and men who are involved in sex work know that they can come forward and feel safe and feel that the police are actually going to help them.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Just in political terms also, by the way, this means that Hillary Clinton loses a superdelegate, right? You have Eliot Spitzer. David Paterson becomes the top superdelegate, and that’s very significant for Hillary Clinton, because he will be one of the only African American governors in US history really rising to prominence. But it doesn’t do very well for the Democrats overall, does it, Wayne?
WAYNE BARRETT: No, it’s a disaster for the Democrats in the state. And look, it’s still a very Democratic state. It’s possible in November a Democratic Senate will get elected. Maybe David Paterson can make that happen. But the unusual thing about Eliot Spitzer was that he could raise the money that would convince really electable Democrats to leave the Assembly, as just happened in late February, and run for these seats. And it was a combination of the money that he could raise and the candidates that he could round up, and I don’t know whether David is going to have the same magic.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. I want to thank you, Wayne Barrett, senior editor at the Village Voice, and Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center.
Juan, your phone has been going off nonstop, and it is because we see the latest news, just looking at the New York Post: Governor Eliot Spitzer has decided to resign and will begin notifying top state officials of the decision right after we go off the air. Word has been circulating of his decision, as Silda Wall Spitzer, his wife, and the Governor’s lawyers go over a possible plea deal. Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, who has remained at his suburban Albany home for the past three days, expected to be notified of Spitzer’s decision within the hour. Sources said Paterson has told friends if he does become governor, he’d like Spitzer to hold off his resignation ’til Monday to give him enough time to prepare for a transition.