Five Seek to Define N.Y. Attorney General Role After Spitzer

By | September 5, 2006

Democrat Eliot Spitzer has tackled illegal trading on Wall Street and fraudulent deals in the insurance industry and sued the federal government to force environmental protections in his nearly eight years as attorney general.

The five people trying to replace Spitzer all say they’ll do the same, a strategy that wins approval from voters.

“I think Spitzer has done a good job,” said Charles Marshall, 71, a retired engineer and registered Republican. “Whoever it is that follows him should be as aggressive as he has been in protecting the public.”

Four Democrats will square off in a primary Sept. 12 for the right to face Republican Jeanine Pirro in the race for the state’s top law enforcement job.

Under Spitzer, who’s running for governor, the office and its hundreds of lawyers has taken a more active role on many fronts, from antitrust cases and consumer fraud to the enforcement of environmental regulations.

Spitzer’s main weapon has been the Martin Act, put on the books in 1921 to curb fraudulent investment advice. The state law has more teeth than federal statutes governing big Wall Street firms and other states’ securities laws because it lets New York’s attorney general get convictions without proving criminal intent and gives him broad powers to subpoena documents and question witnesses.

“Anyone from any industry who gets a call from Spitzer’s office knows he’s not going to be afraid to litigate,” said Alicia Oullette, a professor at Albany Law School who worked in the attorney general’s office under Spitzer and Republican Dennis Vacco. “Spitzer is much more of a consumer advocate and he’s done it on all sorts of fronts. He has greatly expanded the importance of the attorney general’s office.”

In New York, the attorney general still primarily serves as the state’s legal officer, prosecuting actions on behalf of the state, defending it against lawsuits and defending the constitutionality of state laws.

Whoever wins in November will have great leeway in shaping the office. Past attorneys general, including Robert Abrams, have focused on consumer complaints and environmental law. Others, such as Vacco, have tried to steer the office more toward law enforcement that has traditionally been handled by local district attorneys.

Past officeholders say the best qualification for the job is being a top-notch lawyer and a good manager, able and willing to delegate authority to lawyers specializing in areas he or she might be unfamiliar with.

“It’s like running a general law office representing a huge corporation,” said G. Oliver Koppell, who served as interim attorney general in 1994. “You’re not going to do all of these cases yourself. The law has become so complex, with so many varying areas, I don’t think every lawyer can do every legal task.”

Still, Vacco said having prosecutorial experience will help.

“Even Eliot Spitzer, before taking office, his significant career background was as an assistant district attorney,” Vacco said. “That prosecutorial experience of making judgments, weighing facts, making tough decisions” is needed.

“I think that the current attorney general would even argue that what he did on Wall Street and the types of judgments he needed to make, those are similar to the judgments prosecutors make every day,” Vacco said.

The candidates include:

• Republican Jeanine Pirro served as Westchester County district attorney from 1994 to 2005. As a district attorney overseeing 120 prosecutors and 120 other staffers, Pirro launched a series of Internet stings targeting pedophiles and child pornographers. Pirro served as a county court judge for eight years and was an assistant district attorney before that.

• Democrat Andrew Cuomo cites his oversight of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as his primary experience. Under President Clinton, Cuomo ran an agency with thousands of employees and hundreds of lawyers that brought numerous lawsuits targeting corruption and anti-fair housing practices. Cuomo also served as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2002.

• Democrat Mark Green served as New York City’s consumer affairs advocate from 1990 to 1993, leading a 340-person agency that licenses businesses and prosecutes businesses for fraudulent practices. He was later elected New York City’s first public advocate. Green also worked as Ralph Nader’s top aide in Washington and ran Congress Watch, a consumer lobbying group. Green lost to Republican Michael Bloomberg in the 2001 New York City mayoral race.

• Democrat Charlie King served as a housing official in the Clinton administration, overseeing the New York and New Jersey region for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2004, King sued New York City school district under the federal No Child Left Behind law, winning a settlement in the case that allows up to 4,000 children to transfer out of failing schools. He ran for lieutenant governor as Cuomo’s running mate four years ago

• Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney served as staff secretary to President Clinton for three years, overseeing a 100-person staff and the president’s daily workload. He later was the chief operating officer of Kiodex Inc., a company that provides risk management to the commodities derivatives markets. He now works as an attorney hired by companies and other entities to run investigations into financial and legal matters.

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