High-flying Spitzer hits ethical turbulence

Eliot Spitzer is running for governor as the best guy to clean up Albany, including its corrupt "pay-to-play" system of shaking down interest groups for campaign donations and other goodies.

So what the heck is he doing jetting around on the Gulfstream of a Wyoming businessman who wants to run race tracks and build casinos in New York?

It's one thing for Spitzer to pile up money and endorsements from insiders. Fish gotta swim, pols gotta grub for cash.

But accepting deeply discounted air travel from a gambling mogul doing lots of business with state government - as Spitzer and an aide did in May - is too cozy for comfort. The would-be Sheriff of Albany should be keeping a safe distance from favor seekers, not putting himself in a position where he owes them anything.

Spitzer was on a two-day fund-raising swing out West and needed to get from Phoenix to Tucson to Cincinnati and back to New York in a hurry. Casino developer Richard Fields got wind of his predicament and offered the use of his corporate jet. Thanks to him, Spitzer and his aide could meet their tight schedule, skip the long check-in lines and fly in style.

The offer practically screamed "conflict of interest." Fields is part of a group bidding to take over the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga horse tracks. He also represents developers working with the Oneida Indians of Wisconsin to build a casino in the Catskills. Both issues will fall squarely on Spitzer's plate if he wins in November.

Even now, the AG is tangling in court with Fields' clients, the Oneidas, who claim New York cheated them out of land in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The rules governing what politicians should do about flying on private jets are murky, at best. The state Board of Elections says candidates should reimburse the owner for the equivalent of first-class airfare - and Spitzer's campaign eventually cut a check for $4,301. But rival candidates Tom Suozzi and John Faso have questioned that amount, pointing out that there are no direct flights from Tucson to Cincinnati and that Fields' jet used small airports where commercial planes don't land.

Frankly, I don't much care what the rules say. Spitzer, who built his reputation judging the ethics of others, should have known better than to get on that plane.

Keep in mind, Fields had just paid $9,000 to settle charges he broke lobbying laws by loaning his jet to state Sen. David Paterson - now Spitzer's running mate. And Fields has since ponied up $200,000 for Spitzer's campaign account, funneling the money through limited liability corporations to evade contribution limits.

Spokesman Howard Wolfson says Fields supports Spitzer because "he'll be an excellent governor." Excellent for his bottom line, perhaps.

Now that Faso and Suozzi have raised a stink over Spitzer's jet-setting, Spitzer is promising to pay full freight for his travel in the future. Still, Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Anderson insists her boss' flight "followed the letter of the law."

Maybe, but New York needs more than hair-splitting ethical compliance from the next governor. To quote from something Spitzer himself said last year: "Too often decisions about how to spend the people's money are based on who pays for a dinner or a golf outing, or who contributes the most to the campaigns of decision makers. It has to end."