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Burnt Offerings

Jun 17, 2003 7:57 AM

Among the best known sayings of beloved American humorist Will Rogers was his line that he never met a man he didn’t like.

Apparently he never met an attorney general.

They are, in my experience, some of the most unpleasant people one can encounter, many of them ambitious, arrogant and on the make. Most of them are pining to be governor of their state, and they run their offices that way, keeping one eye on the camera and mooching for coverage at every opportunity.

You might remember a few years ago when a host of states ganged up on the tobacco industry and laid it to the cigarette companies. That campaign deserved widespread sympathy, but newspapers had trouble finding columns wide enough to display the picture of all of the attorneys general horning in on the announcement. They were crowding over one another’s shoulder, shoving for space.

Last week another of the clan, Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York, got half a page in the New York Times, putting together a collage of old stories in a 64-page report that accused the New York Racing Association with everything but the 9-11 disaster.

Reports are that Spitzer would like to be governor of New York, and to do that you have to get your name in the papers and on television. What better way than to come up with sound bites about racing and the people who run it. The New York Racing Association has had a few unfortunate incidents in recent years, and Spitzer dug up the old ones and then added a new one, that the track president, Terry Meyocks, had abused his expense account.

This is something, of course, which politicians would know about, since they travel around the world on hoked up expeditions to survey global conditions, or drum up trade, or check on the condition of the Eiffel Tower or Great Wall of China or Leaning Tower of Pisa. And when they go they don’t do it on a small scale. They go en masse, in squadrons, eating at the public trough in some mighty fancy digs. They even have been known to visit Las Vegas at times to check on nuclear refuse and the current condition of G-strings.

In Spitzer’s case, he zeroed in on Meyocks, but leveled no charges. He used vague terms like expenses appearing "injudicious" and "bearing earmarks of immoderation." One dinner at Le Cirque, one of New York’s fanciest watering holes, included a $250 bottle of Italian wine.

Gracious! Land’s sakes! Gee whiz!

The sad part of this diatribe was how Times reporter Dan Barry backed into his story. He repeated all the accusations in the first two paragraphs, and then wrote, "Such is the near tragicomic state of the New York Racing Association as described by the New York attorney general’s office..."

NYRA, of course, was vulnerable because some of its mutuel clerks had been doing nasty things that were clearly illegal, and got caught doing it. What Barry and the Times did not report was that NYRA’s own security played a substantial role in uncovering the hanky panky and nailing the crooks.

Switzer did not escape without rebuttal, and to his credit NYRA’s chairman and CEO, Barry Schwartz, removed his gloves and took him on bare knuckles. Schwarz is no lightweight, having been Calvin Klein’s partner and recently checking out of that operation with $300 million or so. He accused Spitzer of "political grandstanding" and said the investigation had been "a political witch hunt for the last three years." He said he was outraged at the story and that it was filled with inaccuracies, lies and misquotes."

If it was, it was not the first time that happened at the Times in recent weeks. As everyone now knows ”” from the Times’ own front page accounts ”” it was victimized by a free-wheeling fabricating reporter who got special treatment from the paper’s top editor. The reporter was fired and the two top editors subsequently quit when morale in the newsroom deteriorated and the Times’ century and a half reputation was tarnished badly.

Last week’s story generously repeating politically inspired grandstanding in an attack on New York racing did nothing to polish it.