ALBANY, N.Y. — On Saturday night, Gov. Eliot Spitzer was at the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, where President Bush serenaded reporters with a funny song about leaving office. By then the governor knew full well he could be leaving first.
A day earlier, federal prosecutors had told the governor he had been snared in a prostitution operation, according to senior Spitzer aides who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
He initially kept it to himself, so when his aides' cell phones went crazy with a New York Times reporter's calls the night of the dinner, they didn't know why. Neither Spitzer nor the reporter let on.
So began a dayslong political drama that ended Wednesday with Spitzer's resignation. Still to come are decisions on whether the stunning indiscretions by the hard-charging, crusading ex-prosecutor will lead to criminal charges or disbarment.
Aides said the first person Spitzer told about the allegations was his wife, Silda. He told her Sunday in their Manhattan home; his state police driver had taken him there after bad weather canceled his flight.
After several excruciating hours, the couple told their three daughters, the aides said. By Sunday evening Spitzer had called top advisers, personal friends and loyalists. The little band huddled in the apartment until midnight.
After making a watery-eyed, non-specific public apology Monday with his wife by his side, Spitzer continued to talk to family and advisers through Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, aides said, he had decided to resign.
"He thought he should resign from the very beginning," a close adviser recalled. But family members and close friends, including his wife, urged him to fight.
That was before the sordid details seeped out — including that law enforcement officials say the February tryst the governor was recorded arranging was hardly his first.
"I cannot allow my private failings to disrupt the people's work," Spitzer said Wednesday, his weary-looking wife again at his side.
'Some rules can't be broken'
He announced his resignation without securing a plea bargain from federal prosecutors, though a law enforcement official said the governor was still believed to be negotiating one. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
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Spitzer will be succeeded on Monday by Lt. Gov. David Paterson, a fellow Democrat who becomes New York's first black governor and the nation's first legally blind chief state executive.
Spitzer's dizzying downfall was met with glee among many on Wall Street, where he was seen as a sanctimonious bully for attacking big salaries and abusive practices in the financial industry when he was New York attorney general. And his resignation brought relief at the state Capitol in Albany after days of excruciating tension and uncertainty.
"Some rules can't be broken, and when they are broken there are consequences," said state Assemblyman John McEneny, a Democrat. "In this case, one of the most promising careers I've seen in a generation."
The scandal erupted Monday after federal law enforcement officials disclosed that a wiretap had caught the 48-year-old spending thousands of dollars on a call girl at a fancy Washington hotel on the night before Valentine's Day.
Investigators said he had arranged for a prostitute named Kristen to take the train down from New York while he was in the nation's capital to testify before a congressional subcommittee about the bond industry.
With every development, it became increasingly clear that Spitzer, politically, was finished.
Law enforcement officials said the governor — the millionaire heir to a New York real estate fortune — had hired prostitutes several times before and had spent tens of thousands of dollars, and perhaps as much as $80,000, on the high-priced escort service Emperors Club VIP, whose women charge as much as $5,500 an hour.
Court documents that exposed Spitzer also identified nine other men who hired prostitutes from the online sex club. The Duke of Westminister, the richest man in England, also was identified as a customer of the Emperors Club, NBC News reported.
Ready to resign
Spitzer and his wife rode in a black SUV from their Fifth Avenue apartment to his New York City office to announce his resignation — a trip whose every move was captured by TV helicopters. During the news conference, he and his wife stood inches apart, never touching as they entered or left the room.
Video: Spitzer’s money trail Speaking in a strong and steady voice, he apologized for his actions and said: "Over the course of my public life, I've insisted, I think correctly, that people regardless of their position or power take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself."
He did not address the allegations in any detail in the less than three-minute statement and left without taking questions.
In a statement issued after Spitzer quit, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia, the chief federal prosecutor in New York, said: "There is no agreement between this office and Gov. Eliot Spitzer relating to his resignation or any other matter."
Among the possible charges that law enforcement authorities said could be brought against the former governor: soliciting and paying for sex; violating the Mann Act, the 1910 federal law that makes it a crime to take someone across state lines for immoral purposes; and illegally arranging cash transactions to conceal their purpose.
Spitzer, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law, could also be disbarred. In New York, an attorney can lose his license to practice law for failing to "conduct himself both professionally and personally, in conformity with the standards of conduct imposed upon members of the bar."
It was a spectacular collapse for a man who cultivated an image as a hard-nosed politician hell-bent on cleansing the state of corruption. He served two terms as New York attorney general, earning the nickname "Sheriff of Wall Street," and was elected governor with a record share of the vote in 2006. The tall, athletic, square-jawed Spitzer was sometimes mentioned as a potential candidate for president.
But he also made powerful enemies, many of whom complained that he was abusive and self-righteous.
"I really don't feel vindicated," said John Faso, the Republican who lost to Spitzer for governor. But he added: "One of the many things I said was that Eliot Spitzer had one set of rules for himself and one set for everyone else. I never would have imagined it could be so glaring."
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange were transfixed by TV monitors broadcasting Spitzer's resignation, and his ruin drew scattered applause from traders as they went about buying and selling stocks. One trader said some firms even cracked champagne open — a ritual usually reserved for when the Dow hits a milestone.
Paterson to step up
Paterson said in a statement that he was saddened, but added: "It is now time for Albany to get back to work as the people of this state expect from us."
Barely known outside of his Harlem political base, Paterson, 53, has been in New York government since his election to the state Senate in 1985.
Though legally blind, he has enough sight in his right eye to walk unaided, recognize people at conversational distance and even read if the text is placed close to his face.
While Spitzer was famously abrasive, uncompromising and even insulting, Paterson has built a reputation as a conciliator, and lawmakers quickly embraced the new order.
"The first thing he can and I think he will do is end the era of accusation and contempt and ridicule," said Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky. "I think everyone will be better off because of it."
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