Tough Words Come Back to Haunt Spitzer

Defense lawyers call the former N.Y. state attorney general hypocritical.

March 10, 2008— -- In 2004, then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced criminal charges against 16 alleged members of a profitable prostitution ring based in Staten Island.

"This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure," Spitzer said at the time. "It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring, and now its owners and operators will be held accountable."

It was one of the many cases brought by Spitzer's office that helped develop his reputation as a tough-on-crime moral crusader, and one of at least two prostitution cases he oversaw.

But, Spitzer himself is now the target of an investigation linking him to an upscale prostitution ring, ABC News has confirmed. Spitzer issued a general apology Monday at a news conference in Manhattan but would not respond to allegations of his involvement in the ring. He also declined to say whether he would resign.

"I have acted in a way that violates my obligation to my family and violates my, or any, sense of right or wrong," he said.

Vincent Romano, the attorney for Frank Farella, who was sentenced to prison in the Staten Island prostitution ring case, said of Spitzer, "If it is true, it's hypocritical and he should be treated in the same overzealous, mean-spirited way he treated other similarly situated people."

As Attorney General, Spitzer was known for his ambition, his confrontational style and willingness to take on everyone from gun manufacturers to mortgage lenders. Time Magazine called him a "tireless crusader." Others dubbed him the "sheriff" of Wall Street. That reputation helped him easily win election as New York's governor.

"Some public officials may not want to face stricter ethics rules and more competitive elections," he said at his inauguration. "But all citizens will win when we finally get a government that puts the people's interests, openness and integrity first."

During his time as attorney general, Spitzer brought major cases against some of the country's largest corporate giants. He also brought at least two cases against alleged prostitution rings and, as governor, signed legislation to increase penalties for international sex trafficking.

In 2003, his office filed a civil suit, and later brought criminal charges against a travel agency that prosecutors said offered tours for men seeking sex with prostitutes abroad.

The agency "promotes prostitution and the abuse of young women," Spitzer said then.

The criminal case is still pending in the state's court of appeals, said Daniel Hochheiser, a lawyer for one of the defendants, Norman Barabash.

"I hope that the authorities extend a degree of mercy to the governor, which his former office never extended to my client, for an allegation involving prostitution activity, which the attorney general's office initiated and pursued with such righteousness over the past more than five years," Hochheiser said.

Spitzer also investigated large corporate entities, including Merrill Lynch, dozens of mutual fund companies, insurance behemoth American International Group (AIG), and all three of the country's largest insurance brokers.

In 2002, he settled a major case against some of the top Wall Street banks and brokers for alleged stock research abuses. He has also pursued the music industry and sued coal companies for allegedly causing acid rain in New York.