Eliot Spitzer's crusade to clean up corporate America is fuelling his political ambitions, says Andrew Cave
' Has Eliot Spitzer gone too far? I only ask because it seems the thing to do these days. Not long ago, everyone except the people the New York attorney general investigated seemed to like this Mr Clean.
His inquiries into abuses by stockbrokers and fund managers rapidly secured him the position of America's most famous lawyer. Then he brought down the insurance industry's most revered chief executive, AIG's Maurice 'Hank' Greenberg, and even had people debating whether he would go after the saintly Warren Buffett.
This may turn out to be a step too far. Until now, like the classic Hollywood attorney general with an eye or two on greater political office, Spitzer has displayed an unerring grasp for public sentiment. When he went after America's investment banks, most observers in that equity-obsessed nation sighed and said things got way out of hand in those crazy dotcom days. Mutual funds, by far the most popular way for America's army of small investors to play the markets, were the obvious next target. Initially insurance also seemed fair game.
America loved it. In 2002, a Time profile named Spitzer Crusader of the Year, with one commentator claiming: "There has not been such an affirmation of what's right since Moses and the Ten Commandments." Online newspaper Slate said he "may be America's most powerful politician outside Washington".
Insurance looked promising too. The industry was opaque and riddled with practices that failed to meet the new tests of a post-Enron culture, obsessed with corporate governance. Contingent premium agreements scored null points for transparency. More importantly, they stank of possible conflicts of interest, which have become the corporate bête noir for an increasingly suspicious US public.
However, four months after Spitzer confirmed one of the worst kept secrets in US politics - his intention to follow in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D Roosevelt by running for New York governor - the plaudits have turned to brickbats.
Bill Holstein, editor-in-chief of Chief Executive, turned the tables on Spitzer, saying he should resign as attorney-general because of potential appearances of his own conflicts of interest.
Holstein cited a link that whisked people searching on Google for AIG, the insurer at the centre of Spitzer's latest probe, to a website promoting the attorney-general's 2006 campaign. The link, paid for by Spitzer's campaign office, was quickly taken down. Unless Spitzer steps down, argues Holstein, voters won't know whether he had agreed to avoid investigating companies that give money to his 2006 campaign.
AIG and other insurers and brokers may pray that Spitzer heeds Holstein's call, but in the meantime, the games have begun. Satirical website Bongonews.com reports that Spitzer's next mission is to investigate whether the late Pope John Paul II ever had a girlfriend before entering the priesthood.
However, Spitzer won't be probing the late pontiff's "opposition to globalisation, consumerism and unbridled capitalism", reports the website, because he is running for office.
A spokesman for incumbent New York governor George Pataki points out wryly that AG stands for 'aspiring governor' as well as attorney-general.
And I have discovered that if you feed 'Spitzer for President' into an anagram website, it comes out as 'To Frenzied Strippers'. Now what would Spitzer's corporate governance police make of that? IT
' Andrew Cave is the former associate city editor of The Daily Telegraph