Saturday, March 15, 2008

Marshal Law

When a co-worker forwarded to me an e-mail about Eliot Spitzer’s alleged tie with a prostitution ring last week, I thought it was a joke.

It was no joke, of course—though, in incredibly short order, it became something of a circus (one can only hope that with Spitzer’s resignation, we’ll be spared the tiresome details about the personal life of the prostitute(s) whose services he engaged).

Spitzer was touted as a crusader by some—but like the crusaders of old, his motives and actions surely weren’t always pure. And though he reportedly embraced the image of a sheriff, he more accurately brought to mind Henry Fonda’s gunslinger marshal Clay Blaisdell in “Warlock” who, hired to rid the town of terrorizing bandits, soon became an even more ominous threat to the peace and well-being of the citizenry.

Spitzer made a lot of enemies during his career—IMHO, not so much because of what he did, but how he chose to do it. He was, of course, challenging large and powerful interests, but he frequently seemed all too willing to resort to the equivalent of extortion to impose his will on the targets of his investigations.

He may or may not have had the interests of his New York constituency at heart—he may well have merely viewed it as part of a political calculus designed to take him to Albany, and perhaps beyond. However, for the very most part, he wrested acquiescence and money, not guilty verdicts, from his targets. And, mind you, much, if not most, of the financial benefits have wound up in the Empire State’s coffers, not the pockets of those actually injured.

Still, whatever lies ahead for Mr. Spitzer, he has unquestionably left his mark on this industry. Because of his efforts, a number of illegal—and many highly questionable—practices were brought to light, and a new, sharper focus was brought to bear on the fees paid by the investing public, including 401(k) plan participants. I can still remember reading—with much the same incredulity that accompanied the early reporting of Spitzer’s prostitution ties—the arrangements that fund complexes had made to facilitate late trading, the pre-communication about trading movements with hedge funds, and the written agreements that violated both the spirit and letter of these same funds’ commitment to shareholders (see “IMHO: Wrong-Headed”). And let’s not forget that certain other regulatory bodies, given the opportunity to step in, did not (see “IMHO: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”).

Ultimately, of course, what got most of those firms in trouble was the hypocrisy of saying they did one thing while they did something else altogether. That, and a certain hubris about the application of the law. These are maladies often visited upon those grown too rich and too powerful.

It’s more than mildly ironic that they now appear to have contributed to the downfall of a man who also grew rich - and perhaps too powerful - at the expense of others.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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