Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Was there ever any doubt that Eliot Spitzer would be back? When news broke in March 2008 that the former attorney general and current governor of New York had been patronizing high-priced call girls, Spitzer took the high road (or about as high as one can find in that situation): he announced his resignation two days later, fully acknowledged what he’d done to his family and his office, and quickly disappeared from public life. Political scandals erupt so frequently nowadays that we tend to file each quickly away in the bulging folder of American hypocrisy and move on to the next. By the time Spitzer resurfaced at the end of 2008 the financial meltdown had dwarfed his personal misdeeds and validated his earlier crusade against the excesses of Wall Street. Two years later he may still be a punch line, but as cohost of CNN’s prime-time talk show Parker Spitzer, he’s more than capable of throwing a few punches himself.
The brilliant muckraking director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Casino Jack and the United States of Money) revisits the “Love Guv” fracas that brought Spitzer down in his latest documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, but his movie is no simple tabloid recap. Gibney applies himself to two mysteries, neither of which he unravels but both of which make for gripping cinema. He recounts Spitzer’s fierce crusade against the excesses of Wall Street as attorney general and speculates that the FBI probe uncovering his sexual escapades may have been engineered by some of the financial titans he targeted. Gibney also closely questions Spitzer himself—mostly in long shots against a fancy couch—about his epic temper tantrums against his legal prey and political enemies, and his involvement with the Emperors Club VIP. In these scenes Spitzer seems less a man than a maze of political idealism, professional ruthlessness, and spiritual crisis.
Spitzer had a talent for making powerful enemies. Son of a wealthy real estate investor, he earned his law degree from Harvard, soon joined the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and distinguished himself by winning convictions against the Gambino crime family. In 1998 he was elected New York’s attorney general and broke with political precedent by aggressively prosecuting white-collar crime and securities fraud, leaping in where the SEC was slow to act. He busted investment banks for inflating stock prices and electronics companies for price-fixing computer chips. In 2004 he launched a campaign against excessive CEO pay, suing Dick Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and Ken Langone, chairman of the NYSE’s compensation board, over Grasso’s $187 million pay package. The next year he filed a civil complaint against Hank Greenberg, chairman and CEO of the insurance giant AIG, accusing him of fraud, and denounced him in the media.
In Gibney’s reading of events, Spitzer’s maneuvers against Grasso and Greenberg may have led to his undoing. Langone, the billionaire cofounder of Home Depot, nursed a particularly vicious grudge against Spitzer. “I’d like to think I’m not a vindictive person,” Langone tells Gibney. “And a basic tenet of my faith is forgiveness. The most harm that Eliot Spitzer’s done to me is, I am defying my faith. I can’t forgive him.” Gibney describes Langone in voice-over as “an enemy with virtually unlimited resources, one who was watching and waiting for any misstep.” Yet aside from Langone’s far-fetched story that he first learned about Spitzer’s secret dealings from a personal friend, who’d seen the governor applying for money orders at a bank, Gibney never produces anything solid against the businessman. By the end of the movie he’s reduced to asking Spitzer his opinion: “Ken Langone and Hank Greenberg are powerful enemies. Did it ever concern you that they might have played a role in your downfall?” Spitzer cracks, “It probably didn’t concern me enough,” but then shrugs off the question, declaring, “I brought myself down.”
More intriguing is the colorful, plainspoken Roger Stone, a self-professed “GOP hit man” best known for having been canned from Bob Dole’s presidential campaign after the media reported on his and his wife’s swinging sex life. In late 2000 Stone allegedly helped organize the notorious “Brooks Brothers riot” during the presidential election recount in Florida, and later he served as an adviser to Joe Bruno, the Republican state senator who clashed with Spitzer in Albany. Bruno fired Stone in 2007 after Stone was accused of having left Spitzer’s father a threatening phone message. According to Gibney, other Republican bigwigs stepped up to fund Stone’s activities against Spitzer, though neither the funders nor the tactics are specified. Yet Stone himself, appearing onscreen, claims that in late 2007 he met a woman in a Miami club who identified herself as a prostitute and Spitzer as one of her clients, which Stone says he reported to the FBI.
Gibney never produces a smoking gun that proves Spitzer was stalked by his Wall Street enemies, but Client 9 does uncover some odd elements in the case against Emperors Club VIP that suggest its real objective was to expose Spitzer. Though U.S. attorneys were advised not to prosecute johns in prostitution cases, the 47-page affidavit against the club included profiles of ten anonymous clients. “As a piece of writing it was crafted like a mystery story, full of clues,” Gibney relates in voice-over. “It teased the reader with a few sentences each on clients one to eight, and then five riveting pages on client number nine, and his one date with Kristen.” (This would turn out to be Ashley Dupre, who met Spitzer once at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington and ultimately turned her trick into a celebrity career.) Reporters who might otherwise have overlooked this routine case took notice that the Department of Justice’s public corruption unit was involved. On March 10, 2008, the Times broke the story of Spitzer’s connection to the case, and seven days later he retired from government.
The movie’s sketchy case against Greenberg and Langone may open it up to right-wing critics, but one can hardly fault Gibney for his probing examination of Spitzer’s flawed character. The politician was famous for his tirades. When John Whitehead, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal condemning Spitzer’s public accusations of Hank Greenberg, he got a call from the attorney general. According to Whitehead, Spitzer screamed, “You have fired the first bullet, but believe me, by the end of this war I will fire the last one, and you will be dead! . . . I will destroy you!” Gibney confronts Spitzer with these words, and the ex-governor hems and haws: “He and I had a heated conversation. I will leave it at that.” Langone claims that, during the 2004 Democratic convention, Spitzer sent him a message through General Electric CEO Jack Welch: “You tell your buddy I’m gonna put a spike through his heart.” According to Gibney, Spitzer’s staffers made jokes about his evil twin, Irwin.
Some of the women of the Emperors Club VIP comment as well, describing Spitzer as a man constantly looking over his shoulder. “I just remember thinking to myself, this man is so paranoid he’s going to attract a situation,” says Cecil Suwal, CEO of the Emperors Club. Though Ashley Dupre became the public face of the scandal, Gibney has gotten a valuable scoop by interviewing another Emperors Club employee who says she met more regularly with Spitzer. Because she’s since become a commodities day trader and declined to be identified, Gibney has transcribed her words and given them to actress Wrenn Schmidt. “Angelina” describes Spitzer in their first encounter as “a trying-to-get-his-money’s-worth-type client” and says she asked the service not to pair her with him again. They met several more times nonetheless, though she insisted on more civil encounters and spent time talking to him about the city. She remembers FBI investigators quizzing her about whether the governor used sex toys and contradicts Roger Stone’s claim, published in the New York Post, that Spitzer wore black knee socks in bed.
Discussing his secret life, Spitzer is Eliot the good twin—quiet, thoughtful, and humbled. When Gibney asks Spitzer why he sought hookers instead of affairs with other women, the ex-governor tells him, “You cave in to temptations in a way that perhaps seems easier, and perhaps, in some very twisted way, less damaging.” Asked how he dealt with the pressure of his high-stakes subterfuge, he replies, “Those are the mysteries of the human mind, I suppose. I don’t think I can answer that question because I don’t think I know.” Gibney is careful to note the extent to which operations like Emperors Club VIP cater to the financial elite in New York, with the clear purpose of making Spitzer’s outing seem hypocritical. But this also reveals how willing Spitzer was to identify with the same class of men he prosecuted publicly. In the end, the Eliot Spitzer of Client 9 is unfathomable, turned against himself and lost among the levers of influence.