No question, there has been a satisfying sense of what-goes-around-comes-around pleasure in the downfall of resigned Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, as there is when almost any politician is made an object of public disgrace.
Spitzer was notorious as a confrontational, even bullying kind of character who as New York’s attorney general sometimes stretched old laws and abused due process to score political points and ruin peoples’ lives.
As we peer more deeply into the circumstances surrounding the outing of Spitzer as an apparent serial user of prostitutes, however, we’re struck by the fact that most of the laws used to bring down Spitzer shouldn’t have been laws in the first place.
There’s also reason to wonder whether Spitzer was targeted in part because he was a prominent politician, and perhaps even because he was a prominent Democratic politician.
Our view is that there is no sound justification for laws prohibiting prostitution in a free society, so long as the transactions are between consenting adults.
And the 1910 Mann Act, which makes it a federal crime to transport people across state lines for “immoral purposes” and which some observers believe Spitzer may have violated, is an extension of central government power the founders would never have believed to be authorized by a Constitution whose main purpose was to limit government power.
Leave those topics for further discussion, however. The actions that apparently brought Spitzer to federal attention had to do with his bank reporting to the feds “suspicious activity” among different bank accounts of his own.
The law requires banks to report transactions of $10,000 or more, and was amended to require reporting of several transactions within a short period of time that could be viewed as “structuring,” or a way to get around the $10,000 reporting requirement.
Those laws were passed with the ostensible purpose of discouraging or identifying illicit drug dealers or traffickers. Leave aside the fact that the “war on drugs” has done a great deal more harm to society than the prohibited drugs themselves. These financial reporting laws allow government to invade the privacy of ordinary Americans to an unhealthy degree, and have ensnared quite a few innocent Americans in legal tangles that were entirely unnecessary.
Spitzer is heir to a large real estate fortune — some media accounts put it at $500 million. So it might not be out of line for him to move $80,000 (the estimated amount he spent on ladies of the evening) among his personal accounts as readily as some of us might move a few hundred dollars from savings to checking a few days before the mortgage was due.
The IRS agents informed of Spitzer’s transactions are said to have been worried that the activity might have reflected something like a blackmail scheme. Maybe. Or perhaps they were more intrigued by who was triggering the bank reports than by the amounts involved. At any rate they turned the case over to the Public Integrity Section of the federal Justice Department, which launched a full-court-press investigation involving undercover informants, wiretaps, and a “sting” operation (which turned up nothing) two weeks before the liaison we’ve all heard about.
It’s worth noting that the feds showed little interest in the customers of the “D.C. Madam” case last fall; it took media investigations to get the customer list, which included Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter. But the investigators in this case couldn’t wait to leak the name of “Client No. 9.”
This raises the question of whether this was a politically inspired investigation of a prominent Democrat with presidential aspirations by a Republican-controlled Justice Department. There’s not enough evidence to prove this, but there’s enough suggestive material that a congressional investigation might be warranted