Spitzer speaks on corporate integrity at Harvard

AP News
Posted: Nov 12, 2009 8:17 PM

The head of an ethics program at Harvard University strongly defended the choice of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to deliver a lecture on integrity in the nation's financial markets.

Spitzer, driven from office by a prostitution scandal, did not make reference to the episode during the more than hourlong speech Thursday to an audience of about 300 at the Ivy League school. Spitzer, a graduate of Harvard Law School, said only government can enforce integrity and transparency in the markets, and that its failure to do so helped trigger the Wall Street meltdown.

"We didn't need new laws, we just needed regulators to use the power we already had," he said.

Spitzer was introduced by Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, the faculty director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, which invited the former governor to speak.

"No one doubts what Governor Spitzer did was wrong," said Lessig, referring to the personal behavior that led to Spitzer's resignation.

But Lessig went on to call Spitzer "the most important living prosecutor of a wide range of corruption."

Harvard students who attended the lecture expressed support for bringing Spitzer to campus, dismissing any irony of the invitation coming from an ethics program.

"I thought Harvard was courageous to bring him, because we need to hear these voices now," said Tara Jayaratnam, a mid-career student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

While the former governor's personal behavior could not be condoned, Jayaratnam said many public figures have been given second chances and Spitzer deserves one because of his extensive knowledge of regulation, corporate governance and other issues.

Evelyn White, a student at Harvard Business School, said she was very impressed with what she heard from Spitzer.

"About a year ago, I don't think I really would have wanted to hear him speak, but I heard from enough students at other schools who said they had heard him and that he still has a fire and a spark," she said.

As governor and previously as attorney general in New York, Spitzer vigorously pursued deceptive practices and other alleged wrongdoing by major financial companies.

"When the choice had to be made between integrity and market share, integrity and profits, they made the wrong choice," he said in the speech.

Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned in March 2008 after it was revealed he was "Client 9" in a court document that listed the exploits of customers of an escort service. Four people who operated or worked the escort service have pleaded guilty to various federal charges; Spitzer has not been charged with a crime.

Since his resignation, Spitzer has worked in his father's real estate firm and served as an adjunct professor of political science at City College in New York.

According to a description on its Web site, the Safra Foundation was formed in 1986 to provide "serious scholarship in practical ethics in a wide range of fields." The center helps develop ethics programs within the university and also advises other colleges and universities in the U.S. and around the world, according to the description.