Eliot Spitzer Nearly Gave Hillary $2,000, but Changed His Mind

In late October, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer joined many other top state Democrats as an honorary co-chair of the “Broadway for Hillary” birthday bash for First Lady Hillary Clinton. Mr. Spitzer, a wealthy real estate heir who bankrolled his successful campaign to the tune of $9 million, pledged $2,000 for Mrs. Clinton’s prospective Senate bid next year.

That is, until Nov. 8, when Mr. Spitzer, after getting a phone call from The Observer , decided not to give the money after all. “There was the intention to donate, however, he has not written a check and does not intend to do so now,” said Mr. Spitzer’s spokesman, Darren Dopp. “He is sensitive to the appearance of conflict, and we truly do not want to do anything to detract from the nonpartisan tone we’ve tried to establish in this office.”

The “appearance of conflict” is a reference to Mr. Spitzer’s investigation of the New York Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy-a potentially troublesome issue for Mrs. Clinton’s likely Republican opponent next year, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The Mayor’s supporters already have criticized Mr. Spitzer’s probe as politically motivated. It was undertaken in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, earlier this year. The shooting crystalized complaints of police brutality under Mr. Giuliani’s tough-on-crime administration.

If Mr. Giuliani’s allies are trying to tarnish an investigation before a single finding has been issued, they learned the technique from the best of them: James Carville, the Clinton campaign strategist who led the successful charge against independent counsel Kenneth Starr. And now Mr. Carville is making it his business to go after Mr. Starr’s successor, Robert Ray, by pointing out his ties to-you guessed it-Mr. Giuliani. The Mayor, it turns out, personally offered Mr. Ray a job as a Federal prosecutor in 1989, when Mr. Giuliani was a U.S. attorney. Mr. Giuliani resigned before Mr. Ray started in the office.

While the two unannounced candidates circle each other as they prepare for what promises to be a memorable political confrontation, insiders in both camps are worried about the potential impact of the respective investigations. Either Mr. Ray or Mr. Spitzer, or perhaps both, could foil all the careful campaign calculations with a damning document released next year. “In an election that’s so closely contested, [the probes] are a major factor,” conceded one Democrat who has advised Mrs. Clinton. “You’re looking at a race that’s pretty evenly matched, so it could be tilted one way or another by who knows what. These investigations could be that who-knows-what.”

In a post-Kenneth Starr political world, discrediting the prosecutor on your tail turns out to be just another campaign strategy. Consultants and spinmeisters make sure that the public has some reason to doubt an investigation’s findings, no matter how legitimate they may be.

Thus Team Giuliani already has criticized the investigations of two Federal prosecutors who are also looking into the Police Department, Mary Jo White, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, and Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, because both women got their jobs from Janet Reno, who in turn got her job from Hillary’s husband.

Of course, Mr. Giuliani made his name as a U.S. attorney. He was a Ronald Reagan appointee who brought down the city’s corrupt Democratic machine, paving the way for his own ascendancy to the mayoralty. But that didn’t prevent Colleen Roche, Mr. Giuliani’s former press secretary, from going after all the prosecutors in one fell swoop last spring.

“The timing of this is very curious,” said Ms. Roche upon learning of Ms. White’s investigation into the Police Department’s frisking policy, which has been criticized for targeting minorities. “Janet Reno makes this announcement on the same day that Hillary expresses an interest in [the police shooting of] Amadou Diallo … We just hope that all of the Clinton Administration officials and Democratic Attorney General Spitzer don’t bump into each other as they rush to conduct their investigations.”

A Political Goon?

That sort of language seems almost mild when compared to Mr. Carville’s, who called Mr. Ray “an incompetent political goon” for his unsuccessful prosecution of Mr. Clinton’s former Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, for allegedly accepting $35,000 in illegal gratuities.

“In a country of 280 million people, they couldn’t find anyone not connected to Rudy Giuliani?” Mr. Carville said when Mr. Ray succeeded Mr. Starr. Among the issues Mr. Ray will grapple with is the investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s role in firing the White House Travel Office staff six years ago. “This whole thing is just a political deal to try to help Giuliani,” Mr. Carville said. “This thing stinks, and I’m going to start a fumigation program.”

“I was right about Ken Starr, and I hope that I’m wrong about Robert Ray, but I suspect I’m not,” Mr. Carville continued in an interview with The Observer .

In public at least, supporters of each candidate brush off the potential impact of the probes. “The office of the independent counsel is such a discredited office, it’s hard to give weight to anything it does,” said attorney Victor Kovner, a major friend of Mrs. Clinton.

“I don’t think anything surrounding the Diallo case or anything that relates to police brutality will hurt Giuliani,” said Republican consultant Joseph Mercurio. “The rhetoric and the agitation [over the Diallo shooting] was as intense a political outcry as we’ve seen in this town in years, but once the public got some distance, Giuliani’s poll numbers went up.”

But there’s good reason for concern. In 1993, the campaign of former Mayor David Dinkins was sunk, many analysts believe, by a scathing state probe of the Dinkins administration’s conduct during the Crown Heights riot of 1991. The investigation’s findings were released just months before the election, possibly tipping the balance in Mr. Giuliani’s favor. And many of the people close to that campaign, chief among them White House adviser Harold Ickes, are now working for Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Giuliani clearly understands the power of a well-timed investigation. As the 1997 mayoral election approached, he refused to allow State Comptroller H. Carl McCall to audit the city’s crime statistics as well as figures showing the number of people on welfare who had found jobs and data on the cleanliness of city’s streets. Though the Mayor eventually lost in court, he succeeded in delaying Mr. McCall’s audits, and his charge that Mr. McCall was engaged in partisan politics found its way to the editorial page of The New York Times .

Law enforcement officials and career bureaucrats tend to groan when politicians attribute political motives to investigations. Asked about Mr. Carville’s virulent charges against Mr. Ray, one of the investigators looking into the Police Department’s conduct complained that such rhetoric “just taints us all.” But in an interview with The Observer , Mr. Carville was characteristically adamant on the subject, particularly with regard to Mr. Spitzer. The Attorney General is an active Democrat who met with the First Lady in the White House “to encourage her to run,” as a spokesman put it, just two weeks before he announced his probe of Mr. Giuliani’s Police Department. For that reason, among the various investigators looking into the department’s behavior, he is the most vulnerable to the charge of partisan politics. That’s why Mrs. Clinton won’t be getting a $2,000 check from the Attorney General after all.

But Mr. Carville wasn’t about to equate Mr. Spitzer with his new nemesis, Mr. Ray. “Mr. Spitzer wasn’t appointed by a three-judge panel,” Mr. Carville insisted. “I don’t get the comparison here. [Mr. Spitzer] is accountable to the voters. Mr. Ray isn’t accountable to anybody. It’s about as weak as rainwater.”

The ironic thing is, if past is prologue, any charges against Mrs. Clinton could actually drive up her popularity. Even Mr. Giuliani’s aides say an indictment of the First Lady could hurt the Mayor next year because many voters may conclude that she is a victim of a partisan prosecutor. On that point, anyway, Mr. Carville seems to agree. Any negative findings about Mrs. Clinton, he said, “probably will [help], but they’re stupid enough to keep trying.”

So the fumigation process continues.