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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Spitzer's Ethics

Apparently the NY Sun is uncomfortable with something that's been bothering me as well. NY State Attorney General Eliott Spitzer has been making broad and sweeping public accusations about many, without even bringing to bear investigations on all of the accused. As the Sun editorializes:

Even lawyers, it turns out, have ethical rules. The attorney general of New York, Eliot Spitzer, has made a career out of pursuing what he claims are rule-breakers in the Wall Street research, mutual fund, and insurance industries. But with the excitement of appearing on national network television Sunday, he appears to have gotten carried away with himself and to have broken at least the spirit of the rules governing ethical conduct by prosecutors both in New York State and at the federal level.

These columns carry no particular brief for Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG who bought something that Warren Buffett sold him and who now is mysteriously being vilified in public by Mr. Spitzer before any judicial proceedings have been brought. He's been too soft on the Chinese communists for our taste. But nobody deserves this kind of treatment in America; it violates basic notions of due process, which is why these rules are in place. We'd like to believe Mr. Spitzer when he claims, as he did at a Financial Times event the other night, that he's not pursuing "a populist crusade to redistribute wealth" but rather that he's simply trying to enforce "simple rules of transparency." But for all Mr. Spitzer's talk about rules, he seems to have little regard for the ones governing his own conduct. Who's going to rise to the challenge of investigating Mr. Spitzer? We wish him a fairer proceeding than the one Mr. Greenberg is getting.
To me, the whole concept of a government employee publicizing the names of those he may or may not be investigating in the future smacks of everything our nations's legal code is against: "guilty until proven innocent." Apparently the U.S. Department of Justice agrees:

There are exceptional circumstances when it may be appropriate to have press conferences or other media outreach about ongoing matters before indictment or other formal charge. These include cases where: 1) the heinous or extraordinary nature of the crime requires public reassurance that the matter is being promptly and properly handled by the appropriate authority; 2) the community needs to be told of an imminent threat to public safety; or 3) a request for public assistance or information is vital. ... Particular care must be taken to avoid any statement or presentation that would prejudice the fairness of any subsequent legal proceeding. ... Because the release of certain types of information could tend to prejudice an adjudicative proceeding, Department personnel should refrain from making available the following: ... Any opinion as to the defendant's guilt, or the possibility of a plea of guilty to the offense charged, or the possibility of a plea of a lesser offense.

- United States Attorneys' Manual, U.S. Department of Justice