N.Y. attorney general vs. financial Goliaths

Impact: Eliot Spitzer is altering the landscape of Wall Street. Some doubt the changes will last.

November 23, 2003|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

At a time of broad skepticism and disenchantment with government's ability to regulate America's economic giants, Eliot Spitzer has captured the public imagination as a modern-day crusader for the common man.

As New York's attorney general, Spitzer is shaking the foundations of the $7 trillion mutual fund industry with a team of 15 lawyers - a tiny force compared with the legions of federal regulators and prosecutors who have been driven by his revelations to confess their failure to adequately regulate fund trading.

His 6-month probe has uncovered significant problems among the country's biggest and best-known fund families. Since the investigation began, Spitzer's office has brought three criminal cases and has won two felony pleas.

The still-unfolding mutual fund probe is just the latest in a series of regulatory triumphs for the 44-year-old prosecutor.

With small teams of attorneys, Spitzer has gone after General Electric Co. for polluting the Hudson River, sued power companies in the Midwest for causing acid rain and taken on armies of Korean grocers for not paying minimum wage.

Last year, he shook up Wall Street with the zeal of a 1930s reformer when he uncovered corruption involving stock analysts and the powerful investment banking firms they work for.

That investigation led to sweeping changes in the way analysts do their jobs and forced the nation's largest investment firms, including Merrill Lynch & Co., Morgan Stanley and Citigroup Inc., to pay more than a billion dollars in fines in a settlement agreed to in April.

Spitzer makes no effort to hide his disdain for the federal regulators he regularly shows up. In one recent speech he declared that he "wouldn't let [the SEC] handle a house closing," according to media reports.

Some critics scorn his crusades as being fueled by raw political ambition, while others question his ability to bring about lasting change.

Still, there is little doubt that Spitzer has done more recently to address corrupt financial practices than any other official or institution in the country, including William H. Donaldson, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Congress.

"I think he is a hero," said Amy Domini, founder and chief executive of Domini Social Investments LLC, a New York mutual fund company. "Finally, somebody who is an elected official is running on protecting the population ... from malfeasance and outright robbery."

"He is a take-no-prisoners guy," said William Sorrell, Vermont's attorney general and a co-combatant in multistate regulatory efforts. He doesn't "worry about the niceties. There tends to be some scars and bodies" in his wake.

Others call Spitzer a grandstander, a headline grabber whose clear aim is to boost his popularity so he can run for governor of New York.

"I've seen this movie before," said Michael Holland, chairman of Holland & Co. LLC, a New York-based investment company, and former general partner of the Blackstone Group, a global investment advisory firm. "I do recall a predecessor who had some of the same script; his name was Rudy Giuliani. It is clearly good politics for Eliot Spitzer - brilliant politics."

Politics or not, Spitzer says his motivation is straightforward - to punish wrongdoers and help small investors, especially when no one else is doing it.

"When there is a void, and you have an enormous issue that is going unaddressed and there is exposure for small investors, somebody has got to step in and do it," Spitzer said during an interview in his Manhattan office on the 25th floor of 120 Broadway. "The reality is that other people should have done it first and yet they didn't."

Spitzer looks like a crusader sitting in his sprawling office with its royal blue carpeting. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, tie and charcoal pinstriped suit, he is lean, athletic and has a mischievous smile.

His deep-set eyes flicker when he discusses the impact his office's investigation has had on the mutual fund industry.

"Remarkable," he said. "Never could have predicted it. Back before we announced this, I said to some folks here, `This will be interesting, but there is no way it will compare in impact to last year's investigations of the investment banks.' I was wrong. For the 90-plus million Americans who have mutual funds, this is perhaps even more significant."

And the investigation is just cranking up.

"The problems we have seen are deeply troubling," Spitzer continued. "There will be more criminal cases. There is the very good possibility that there will be criminal cases brought against entities, corporations as well as individuals."

Spitzer's quest to clean up Wall Street has made him famous. Newspapers, magazines and television stations barrage his office each day with requests for interviews. His exploits are regular fare in papers and magazines across the country.

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